By Sally Beauvais
Governor Greg Abbott has declared the new coronavirus a statewide public health disaster in Texas, as the number of confirmed cases in the state continues to climb.
Community spread of the virus has also begun in the state’s two largest urban areas, Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston. The Texas Department of State Health Services is urging Texans to cancel large gatherings and practice “social distancing”.
In Far West Texas, a local task force assembled by Big Bend Regional Medical Center is stressing that spring break season is heightening the risk of COVID-19—the disease caused by the new coronavirus—spreading to the area.
There are currently no confirmed cases of the disease in the region.
What Should I Do To Protect Myself And Help Prevent The Spread of COVID-19 In My Community?
As of Thursday, March 13 the hospital task force is recommending that any resident who has recently traveled internationally or to a high-risk area in the U.S. in the last three weeks to automatically self-quarantine for 14 days when they arrive back home, if possible.
“That’s absolutely the responsible thing to do,” said Dr. Ekta Escovar, a pediatrician on the task force.
As of this morning, the hospital’s list of high risk places (from Dr. Escovar): pic.twitter.com/qtGUSJcVIa— Sally Beauvais (@sallybeauv) March 13, 2020
Escovar acknowledged this could be a “very hard decision to make” for businesses and employees during spring break, which is one of the busiest and most financially fruitful seasons in the region.
“We are applauding every member of the community who is making sure that our public health is their main priority,” Escovar said, adding that she wants to keep West Texas as isolated from the rest of the country as possible.
On Saturday morning, the hospital task force expanded their list of high-risk areas to the following: Washington State; Oregon; California; Las Vegas; Colorado; New York State; New Jersey; the Boston-area; Georgia; Florida; New Orleans; and two major metropolitan areas in Texas — Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston.
Escovar is urging residents to remember that people who contract the disease do not necessarily show symptoms right away.
“Folks may be coming back from these high-risk areas having been exposed to COVID-19, they may have the disease, and they might not know they’re sick until five to six days—on average—into the illness,” Escovar said.
She clarified that if one person is self-quarantining in a family household or a house with roommates, everyone staying at the residence should follow suit. Walking outdoors, or entering into mostly unoccupied spaces where you can stay at least six feet away from other people and not cough or sneeze on shared surfaces is safe for those self-quarantining, according to Escovar.
The Presidio County Sheriff’s Office dispatchers have been instructed to screen 911 calls to detect coronavirus symptoms such as a dry cough and fever, according to the Big Bend Sentinel.
The City of Marfa has asked that immunocompromised people stay home to avoid the risk of infection. Mayor Manny Baeza said that the city’s Meals on Wheels program will switch to delivery only beginning Monday, and will close the senior nutrition center lunch hall at the MAC building for at least a week.
“Please continue to use good hygiene practices, check on family and neighbors who are elderly or have compromised immune systems, and stay home if you are ill,” city officials wrote in a statement Friday.
Read more about what you can do to reduce the risk of spreading or contracting COVID-19 here.
Can I Get Tested For COVID-19 In The Big Bend Region?
State officials announced Friday that Texas is on the verge of being able to significantly increase its testing capacity. It’s unclear whether that will impact services in the Big Bend region.
While local medical providers do not have the capability to actually run tests and get results for the new coronavirus directly in the Big Bend region, Alpine’s hospital and area clinics are able to swab a limited number of patients and send specimens off to one of several labs to get results.
Preventative Care Health Services has 5 testing kits in stock for each of its locations in Alpine, Marfa, and Presidio, for a total of 15, according to a staff member. Marfa Country Clinic has 4 kits in stock currently and is expecting 20 by Monday, according to Dr. JP Schwartz.
Big Bend Regional Medical Center routinely keeps a supply of swabs in stock to test for other seasonal viruses and diseases. Dr. Escovar estimated the hospital has 70-100 on hand right now, but stressed they are also being used to test for more routine illnesses.
According to Escovar, if a patient meets the criteria for testing by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of State Health Services, the hospital can send their specimens off to the state-run regional facility in El Paso, and receive results within 24-48 hours.
If a patient doesn’t meet those requirements, but a local physician decides it’s likely they may have COVID-19, their swab can be sent off to one of two national private testing labs, Quest Diagnostics and LapCorps. Those results are expected to take closer to 3-4 days, Escovar said.
Local providers are urging people experiencing cold-like symptoms be exercise extra caution and stay home, even if you would normally go to work under such conditions.
The symptoms of COVID-19 range from mild to severe (with most cases being mild-to-moderate) and can include a dry cough, low to high fever, shortness of breath, and in fewer cases, a runny nose. Local healthcare providers have to reserve testing swabs for severe cases at this time, according to Escovar.
If you think you may have COVID-19, local doctors are asking that you do not walk directly into a local clinic or hospital, as you may spread the disease to other people instead the facility. Instead, call ahead and your provider will advise you of next steps.
Should the tri-county area see severe cases of COVID-19 in the future, Big Bend Regional Medical Center has two rooms outfitted to support and stabilize critical patients until they can be transported to a larger hospital. At this time, the area’s regional center for severely ill patients is in El Paso.