By Carlos Morales
For several days last week, local health officials in Far West Texas say they were without crucial coronavirus data as the rampant virus spread in El Paso forced the state’s health agency to delay the release of detailed coronavirus reports.
Local officials rely on these reports to track the scope and scale of the outbreak in their region. But as El Paso approached a staggering 35,000 active cases, the regional health department—which reports on coronavirus cases to over 30 counties—itself fell victim to the virus and was briefly delayed in releasing full reports on positive cases.
The root of the problem: employees at the Texas Department of Health and Human Services’ Region 9/10 offices were testing positive for COVID-19—“a high number of staff,” said Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara in a press release. The region 9/10 office covers a large swath of West Texas, including counties in the Big Bend region and the Permian Basin.
Due to the outbreak, HHS employees in El Paso had to vacate their regional office to work from home, and, in some cases, quarantine after testing positive for the virus.
“Due to a high number of persons currently infected in the community, they are no longer able to report cases in the same manner as in the past,” wrote Guevara.
Without access to certain computers and hard drives, Guevara said the regional office wasn’t able to “provide the different jurisdictions with the information needed to provide press releases.”
The reports received by Presidio County officials were incomplete, and information on positive cases were bare, they said. The reports during this time, officials said, didn’t have critical information such as a person’s age, residency, when they entered their quarantine period or when they were expected to be out of it.
“We started getting reports that were much different than we had gotten before,” said Dr. John Paul Schwartz, the local health authority for Presidio County. “They were not able to give us basically the useful data we needed.”
In an email to Marfa Public Radio, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services denied that the reports were incomplete, saying they “looked different than their usual reports but had all the information that local officials needed to make decisions.”
“We checked on the situation and there were some cases in the regional office in El Paso that required additional staff to quarantine and work from home last week,” said the spokesperson. “Most of them have now been released from quarantine and are back in the office.”
In the days following the disruption in reporting, the state said they were in contact with local officials like Guevara and Schwartz to ensure “they had the information they needed.”
Schwartz said regular, detailed reporting on coronavirus cases in the Big Bend region has resumed. But he said the disruption in COVID-19 data—which even briefly affected reporting to places like Big Spring—shows how precarious the pandemic response is, especially in rural areas.
“If you don’t have [reliable data],” said Dr. Schwartz, “then you’re completely hamstrung. You can’t do anything that you need to do.”
There are now 73 active cases in Presidio County, nine in Jeff Davis County, and 137 in Brewster County, which saw its largest single-day surge of newly confirmed cases this week when 90 cases were added to the tally in one day.