By Carlos Morales
Presidio County officials this week reached an agreement with the city of Marfa to provide its contact tracing services to the areas just outside the Marfa city limits.
With the state’s efforts at providing effective, reliable contact tracing in question, counties and cities have had to set up their own programs—and in rural corners of Texas it’s been a challenge to get started. But now three months in, the initiative has proven successful and, according to local health officials, has shown to reduce local spread of the virus.
Marfa Public Radio’s Carlos Morales spoke with the head of Marfa’s contact tracing efforts, Don Culbertson to talk about the program, its future and whether, amid growing cases, it’s still a useful tool for rural Far West Texas.
If you’re in the Marfa area, and have tested positive for the coronavirus, or have had contact with someone who has, you can reach Culbertson’s team at 432-279-0279.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. To listen to the extended conversation, click the audio player above.
Carlos Morales: Don, when we look at Marfa’s contact tracing program, how many residents so far have have gone through this process, which seems to amount to a bit like detective work?
Don Culbertson: Contact tracing is precisely that, it is detective work. And basically, the program really got off the ground in early October. And from the inception of the program to now, we’ve done contract tracing on roughly 69 people.
CM: When we’re looking at the program, the effectiveness of contact tracing, I imagine, only goes as far as the willingness and the response from locals. So what’s that been like?
DC: Well, we are dependent on people calling our hotline number. But there’s people getting tested at our clinic, Marfa country clinic where I work. And of course, when they test here, we obtain their results and inform them and then we can start the contact tracing program.
But people who get tested in Alpine at Big Bend Regional [Medical Center], for example, or with the testing that comes around the community and the various towns, we depend on people letting us know what their results are.
We’re really here for about four things. We’re here to inform people of results. We’re here to determine what the health status of a person is. And we’re here to ask them about other people they might have contacted or been in contact with or close to. And we’re also here to figure out their quarantine time and what they need to do to keep themselves in other safe.
CM: As you’ve explained so far, Marfa’s tracing program does seem to be a boon to the city’s efforts at at mitigating the spread of the virus. But as you and I know, living out here in rural Far West Texas, a lot of us make trips to Fort Davis, to Alpine, to Presidio. So without similar programs in surrounding cities, does that impede the overall effectiveness of what you’re able to accomplish in Marfa?
DC: Absolutely it does. This is a regional spread. It’s not a my-town or your-town. We all work in different locations and travel and shopping different places and go to school and Alpine, things like that.
I mean, all these municipalities are kind of on their own.
CM: I’ve heard and seen reports about contact tracing efforts failing on larger scales—at the state level and metropolitan level. So what is it about Marfa’s contact tracing program that makes it work?
DC: Rural areas, Marfa specifically, as an example, are places where contact tracing is very relevant. Again, we don’t have a theater, we don’t have a bowling alley. We don’t have a NFL team. We don’t have large gathering spaces.
We have churches, grocery stores, and people who socialize with one another on a smaller scale. We have workplaces. We do have some tourist amenities, some restaurants and bars and things like that. But contract tracing can be quite effective.
I have several anecdotes, if you want to hear them?
CM: Is there one in particular that that comes to mind immediately?
DC: Absolutely. A person contacted the contact tracing hotline. And I had informed them of their positive status and started working with them regarding their symptoms and their quarantine timeline and who they might have been around. And then later that evening, I was jogging through the streets of Marfa and I passed their home. And lo and behold, there they were sitting on their porch, enjoying the evening sunset. And with social distancing, I stood back and had a conversation with them and answered some of their questions right there in the middle of my jog.
You know, I’ve had people approached me in the grocery store saying, ‘My cousin needs food, how do I get food to them,’ and then we’ve contacted the food bank. Those are things that can really happen in a small area, rural community, Marfa specifically.
CM: As we’ve seen, cases, jump to record highs here locally in the last few weeks, is contact tracing still the right tool?
DC: Well, from a public health health standpoint, it’s fairly easy and it’s fairly cheap, and it’s fairly effective.
I don’t really see what other tools we have at this time. Hopefully, [contact tracing] will all be obsolete with vaccines and a level of immunity for people in our area.
We all look forward to that day.