COVID-19 Spike Puts Tri-County Area In ‘Dire’ Situation

By Ari Snider and Carlos Morales

Coronavirus cases in the Big Bend region have reached a staggering and grim milestone. As of Tuesday, the number of current cases in the tri-county area was over 700, with Brewster and Presidio counties currently one of the nation’s top coronavirus hot spots.

Dr. John Paul Schwartz, the local health authority for Presidio County, says the region is facing a crisis. And with no statewide stay-at-home mandate coming, Dr. Schwartz urged residents to take the initiative and isolate themselves as much as possible.

For Presidio County, the daily average of new cases in the last seven days has hovered close to 27, and in neighboring Brewster County that figure is roughly 34.

With limited resources, residents in the Big Bend region have largely relied on public coronavirus testing provided by the state. (Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio)

Schwartz says it’s hard to pin down exactly where the surge in cases is coming from, but there are several likely contributing factors. First, asymptomatic young people unwittingly spreading the virus to family and friends. Second, he believes continued travel between the city of Presidio and Ojinaga is fueling outbreaks on both sides of the border, especially given the extensive familial ties that connect the two sister cities.

Listen to the full interview below.

Lastly, Schwartz said there are the people—locals and tourists alike—who are still not adhering to basic public safety guidelines. “The people who are not wearing masks are infecting other people,” Schwartz said. “I mean that’s pure and simple, that’s what’s going on.”

Localized resistance to mask-wearing persists even as the tri-county is breaking all the wrong records. This week Presidio and Brewster counties made the top ten on a New York Times list of counties with the highest number of new COVID-19 cases per capita in the entire country.

Citing the alarming spike in new cases, Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara issued a statement on Monday, Nov. 30 imploring residents to stay home has much as possible.

“As you all know, we are in a difficult battle,” wrote Guevara. “COVID-19 cases are in an extreme rise and we are all facing very difficult times. At the same time, many of us are faced with COVID fatigue and cynicism.  PLEASE DO NOT STOP FIGHTING,” she emphasized.

Despite rising caseloads across the state—and hospitals pushed to the brink in many regions—Gov. Greg Abbott has said he will not issue another statewide business shutdown like those he implemented earlier this year.

That alarms Schwartz.

Now, the rural doctor said, it’s up to residents to take matters into their own hands. “Do your own lockdown,” he said. “This situation is really dire right now. We’re in bad shape out here.”

For locals who still need to travel to access medical care or for other essential purposes, Schwartz recommends packing your own food, avoiding public restrooms, and wearing a mask at all times.

A handwritten message in Marfa asking people to stop “traveling during a pandemic.” Frustration has been growing among residents as tourists continue to visit the region even as new virus cases skyrocket. (Carlos Morales / Marfa Public Radio)

As for mounting frustration among some locals that tourism is contributing to an increase in cases, Schwartz says it’s difficult to determine how many cases are attributable to visitors. And without robust contact tracing throughout the region, it’s difficult to say if officials will ever realize the impact continued tourist travel is having.

He says there are ways to visit the region safely, by following public health guidelines and enjoying outdoor activities like a hike in the national park—but adds that tourists frequenting restaurants and bars may well be a contributing factor in the region’s skyrocketing caseloads.

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