‘Backyard’ of Texas Braces for Coronavirus Outbreak

The Big Bend region of West Texas is among the most sparsely populated parts of the country, but health experts are nonetheless gearing up for the possible arrival of the novel coronavirus. (CNS Photo/Travis Bubenik)

MARFA, Texas (CN) – The Big Bend region of West Texas, often called the state’s “backyard” for its sprawling national park and sought-after remoteness away from urban life, is one of the most sparsely populated parts of the country.

But even here, where the closest thing to a traffic jam comes in the form of cattle crossing the road, health officials are gearing up for the possible arrival of the coronavirus, particularly as the Spring Break season approaches and tourists flock to the area.

Just like in the state’s capital city of Austin, where concerns about the virus have already stunted the massive South by Southwest festival, this more rugged corner of Texas has found itself weighing public health interests against the potential economic fallout of a coronavirus overreaction.

Experts are urging caution, mainly because of how few health care resources the region has.

“I think we’re bound to get at least one case at some point,” Ekta Escovar, a pediatrician at Big Bend Regional Medical Center in Alpine, Texas, said in an interview. “I think it’s unrealistic to think that we won’t get any cases, and we will just escape [it] completely.”

Escovar sits on a coronavirus task force recently launched by her small, 25-bed hospital, the closest thing to a major medical facility for huge swaths of this rural corner of the state.

It’s hard enough for providers here to meet demand for basics like dialysis treatments or end-of-life care, so the prospect of a local coronavirus outbreak is daunting.

“We’re already maxed out on a lot of our capabilities, and when we bring the outbreak into that picture, that’s really going to take a toll,” Escovar said.

To be clear, West Texas has not yet seen any cases of the novel coronavirus or COVID-19, the disease the virus leads to. Texas health officials on Thursday said five travel-related cases of the virus in the greater Houston area had so far been identified, though they maintained the overall risk to Texas remains low.

Still, the hospital in Alpine said West Texans should take precautions.

“Infections will continue to spread and infections in our local area [are] extremely likely,” Big Bend Regional Medical Center said in a public service announcement distributed locally. “However, the goal is to slow the spread so the hospital can handle the increased patient load without being overwhelmed or running out of resources.”

Escovar worries the seasonal influx of tourists to the region over the next few weeks could increase the risk of the virus showing up here.

Big Bend National Park has drawn a record-breaking number of visitors in recent years, while the neighboring town of Marfa’s status as an international art destination routinely attracts tourists from all over the world.

In the context of the coronavirus, Escovar said, the busy season could be a risky season.

“We are very nervous about Spring Break,” she said. “We can be in a really nice bubble [in West Texas], but Spring Break is going to burst that bubble.”

So, should the tourists just stay home?

“Yes,” Escovar said. “Short answer, yes.”

For the scores of hotels, Airbnb owners and restaurants that depend on the seasonal spike in tourist dollars, the answer might not be so simple.

“This is by far the busiest two weeks of the year for the Big Bend,” said Robert Alvarez, executive director of the Brewster County Tourism Council.

Alvarez said he understands the concerns from health experts, but he doesn’t think the virus poses a big enough risk to warrant visitors staying away.

“That’s an isolationist attitude,” he said. “We just don’t have the population here for it to actually be a concern. We’re not elbows to elbows everywhere here.”

There’s no sign yet that coronavirus concerns have significantly impacted the region’s tourist numbers. Hotels and campgrounds are full, Alvarez said. Marfa’s tourism center director Minerva Lopez reported a similar scene.

“We have lots of tourists around, this whole week has been just like, impact,” she said. “You can go to all these restaurants and they’re booked, they’re full.”

The visitors have included a group traveling the region on a large tour bus and a 40-person crew working on a professional photo shoot, Lopez said.

While the local economic effects of coronavirus or the lack thereof remain to be seen, the Alpine hospital has asked for the public’s help in preparing for the potential health impacts.

Anyone who develops mild symptoms of the COVID-19 disease – fevers, a dry cough, body aches or headaches – should self-quarantine at home for 14 days from when the symptoms began, the hospital said. Following nationwide guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the hospital specifically asked West Texans to stay home for mild symptoms and to call the hospital or any other clinics before visiting if severe symptoms develop.

And then there are the more fundamental approaches to avoiding the virus.

“I’m bumping elbows instead of shaking hands,” Lopez said.

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