Virus Cases Grow in Rural Corner of Texas as Phased Reopening Continues

Confirmed cases of Covid-19 are on the rise in Texas’ Big Bend region, where the one local hospital has only 25 beds.

The rural Big Bend region of West Texas had zero confirmed coronavirus cases for weeks after the pandemic began. The number has inched into the double digits in recent days. (Courthouse News photo/Travis Bubenik)

MARFA, Texas (CN) — In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the Big Bend region of far west Texas felt like a kind of oasis.

As the number of people falling sick and dying in places like New York City started to skyrocket in late March, this far-flung corner of Texas stayed mostly unaffected by the virus itself.

To be sure, the region’s tourism-dependent economy was hit hard by government-mandated closures of shops, restaurants and even the sprawling Big Bend National Park at the start of the spring tourist season. But across hundreds of miles of wide-open cattle country and high desert terrain, the number of people known to be infected here held steady at zero for weeks until May, when results started trickling in from mobile testing sites deployed by the state.

Now, as that testing ramps up, any image of the Big Bend as a safe haven from the pandemic is fading.

Multiple new Covid-19 cases have been confirmed in the area in recent days, bringing the region’s total since the pandemic began into the double digits. The small town of Alpine, population about 6,000, is reported to have nine active cases, while state health officials say they now assume community spread of the virus has arrived, meaning the virus is likely being transmitted locally and not solely coming from people traveling in or out of the region.

“I’d say last week, I don’t think anyone thought … it was like there was no pandemic,” said Amy Ellis, a Montessori school teacher who lives in Alpine.

A few weeks ago, Ellis started a “Pandemic Report” Facebook group for locals to share updates. She’s kept a close eye on the news and has taken the virus seriously herself, avoiding stores as much as she can.

A sign in Marfa, Texas (pop. about 2,000) encourages people to take safety precautions against the coronavirus. (Courthouse News photo/Travis Bubenik)

Ellis said she’s felt “frustrated and exasperated” to see the recent jump in cases, particularly as she’s watched some in the community seem to shrug off the risks. She recalled driving down her town’s main drag just after the bars were allowed to reopen.

“The parking lots were full, the tables were full, there were just a lot of people who were eager to be over it and thought it was not a big deal to begin with,” she said.

While the virus numbers in the Big Bend region remain low, they aren’t insignificant. Local officials have warned all along that it wouldn’t take much to overwhelm the region’s health care system, as the one local hospital has only 25 beds.

The hospital, Big Bend Regional Medical Center, said late Tuesday it has not yet had any Covid-19 patients admitted. Nobody in the region has died from the disease, according to state data.

Still, local officials have been holding regular planning talks with the hospital, according to Alpine City Manager Erik Zimmer.

“You know, how many of these nine [active cases] translate into somebody needing to go to the hospital to get a higher level of care?” he said. “So we’ll discuss that and talk about that a little bit more.”

The hospital is keeping a close watch on the situation, a spokesperson said.

“BBRMC takes emergency preparedness seriously and our team has been carefully monitoring this situation and making preparations to safely care for Covid-19 patients for some time,” hospital spokesperson Ruth Hucke said in a statement. “Our hospital is equipped to treat a wide variety of conditions. As always, should capacity or patient acuity levels become a concern, we work closely with other regional hospitals to facilitate quick access to the most appropriate level of care for patients.”

Zimmer has expressed frustration with how some in the community have responded to the pandemic, previously telling Courthouse News that city officials faced more public backlash over their short-lived order requiring residents to wear masks than any other measures taken to prevent the virus’ spread.

“When I saw these nine cases pop up, I’ve been asked multiple times in these last 24 hours, ‘are you surprised?’” Zimmer said. “Honestly not. The general behavior I’ve observed, it doesn’t surprise me.”

Statewide, the number of people hospitalized with Covid-19 in Texas has grown over the last week, repeatedly breaking records as the state’s third “phase” of reopening gets underway. State health officials have stressed that there are still plenty of hospital beds available.

“The reality is, Covid-19 still exists in Texas,” Republican Governor Greg Abbott said during a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

Abbott pointed back to the onset of the pandemic, when the primary goal was to “flatten the curve” to avoid overwhelming hospitals.

“Importantly, that goal has been achieved,” he said. “Only about 10% or even less of Texans who test positive for Covid-19 ever even need to go to the hospital in the first place, and when they do, there is a hospital bed there available for them.”

Abbott said Texas continued to have one of the lowest rates of death from Covid-19 in the U.S. and described hospitals as more prepared now to treat patients with the disease than they were a couple months ago, saying they have more personal protective equipment on hand and new treatments.

At Tuesday’s press conference, the state’s top health official said the recent statewide increase in confirmed coronavirus cases was not a surprise, but that it was happening at “a manageable level.”

“The possibility that things could flare up again and produce a resurgence of Covid-19 that would be a stress on our system, on our health care system, is still very real,” John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the state health department, said. “We must, however, maintain the fact that we have an opening up of our economy.”

Hellerstedt said reopening safely would depend on Texans’ ability to practice “preventative measures” like keeping up social distancing and wearing masks.

“We must do this, Texas, in order to be successful in facing this next phase of our fight against Covid-19,” he said.

Meanwhile this week, more than 1,000 Texas residents and business owners, including Texas House Representative Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, and multiple former state lawmakers, sued state officials in federal court on Monday over claims that the governor’s earlier moves to close businesses were unconstitutional. The plaintiffs also want the courts to block the state’s widespread contact tracing of people infected with the coronavirus, claiming the tracing is an illegal invasion of privacy.

“Large-scale contact tracing as undertaken by defendants imposes a profound chilling effect on First Amendment associative rights of plaintiffs and all Texans,” the lawsuit states. “Specifically, plaintiffs are unconstitutionally infringed in their freedom of association, because depending on with whom plaintiffs associate, defendants may subject plaintiffs to unwanted surveillance by the state of Texas.”

Abbott’s recent executive orders to reopen the state’s economy have effectively outlawed local-level pandemic rules, leaving officials in towns like Alpine to simply encourage residents to heed public health warnings.

“Social distancing, wearing a mask, limiting the amount of exposure you have to people in office buildings or restaurants, that’s what we’re going to advocate,” Zimmer said. “Adherence to that messaging and those ideas and suggestions is not really where we want it to be, to be quite frank.”

Ellis said she was recently encouraged to see “big burly biker dudes and big ol’ ranchers” putting their masks on before going into the local post office.

“We need the big manly men wearing masks to get the other men to do it,” she said. “I feel like if more people saw more people in masks, it would just become natural.”

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