Testing for the COVID-19 virus – what tests should be used and who should get them – returned to the forefront of discussion at Tuesday’s meeting of the Hays County Commissioners Court.
But commissioners and County Judge Ruben Becerra also widened the discussion to include how and when the county’s economy should be “reopened,” how the virus has affected property values and how the impacts might carry over into budgeting for the FY 2021 Fiscal Year.
Concerning testing, the court amended an existing agreement with Clinical Pathology Laboratories to include COVID-19 testing and also approved agreements with Premier ER & Urgent Care and Live Oak Health Partners to provide molecular testing, which is the primary novel coronavirus.
Tuesday’s discussions, however, also touched heavily on serology testing. While that type of test isn’t a good indicator of whether a person is infected, it can better a community’s understanding of the virus because it shows whether someone has had it in the past, how much of the population is asymptomatic and whether there are “clusters” or specific populations that need to be addressed.
Regarding the latter, the indigent population was identified. Although local testing has been of health care providers and first responders, as well as people with underlying health concerns displaying symptoms of the virus, Becerra noted that the “other frontline” is made up of people working, for example, in fast-food restaurants.
Those people are “feeding our slowly moving economy,” Becerra said, but are also uninsured or underinsured, low-income and, in many cases, single parents who do not have a health care provider. He called getting to that population the “next piece.”
Tammy Crumley, director of the county’s Countywide Operations, said the Live Oak Partners, operating out of the Health Department offices on Broadway Street in San Marcos, could help fill that role.
Crumley also spoke of a questionnaire recently sent out to the medical community for further input on testing, and told commissioners that some limits would need to be set on testing available through a grant from the Department of State Health Services.
Pct. 4 Commissioner Walt Smith noted the CDC’s position that testing should be dictated “by the need more than the availability,” the latter is still important. “What we see isn’t a curve, it’s a wave. We’re going to have re-infections in the fall, peaks and valleys. If we don’t have those supplies ready for when those peaks reappear then we would be in trouble.”
Smith also expressed concern about hospital space and the usage of that space, noting that whole floors in some hospitals have been set aside for COVID-19 patients that have, at least not yet, appeared. People aren’t going to the emergency room for most concerns now, he said. “We need to make sure we have medical professionals” available and on staff at a time some facilities are cutting back on personnel.
There were also questions about contact tracing, which Smith said he understands might be part of the next Congressional package.
“We have done contract tracing from patient one,” the county’s Epidemiologist Eric Schneider said. “Everyone gets a phone call from me. We talk about their job, their household contacts and contacts 14 days prior to that.”
Still, authorities acknowledged there is no clear path forward. “The sooner we can compile information, that’s when we get closer to having a good idea and a good plan,” Alex Villalobos, Emergency Operations coordinator, said. “Currently we don’t have enough data to make policy decisions and we need to get to that point … if we open up areas without data I think we’re guessing.”
Becerra noted there are legal issues to businesses reopening in terms of how much government can influence their behaviors — for example, taking the temperatures of employees — as well as HIPAA rules.
“We’re all concerned about getting businesses open,” Pct. 3 Commissioner Lon Shell said. “What type of policy decisions do you foresee? For the most part, are we going to be following the governor on when to open and how to open?”
Becerra said there would have to be adjustments that tailor the process to the community’s needs. “As this unfolds further, a part of the roadmap getting us back to work is understanding who and what and when and why. It’s a complex medley of factors.”
“The roadmap is still very fluid, even at the state and federal level,” Villalobos added.
Moving forward, Becerra said he is looking into property tax relief. The appraisals sent out recently by the Hays County Appraisal District were based on “a snapshot of property values taken with no COVID-19 in sight,” he said.
Becerra also noted that budget season “is upon us,” and it’s time to start examining how the economic shutdown is going to affect next year’s budgets — detailing that every office, precinct and department is going to have to do their part to produce a “workable budget.”
To that end, he said he’s also been working with local business leaders, chambers of commerce and the Greater San Marcos Partnership.
“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Becerra said. “We want to duplicate what others are doing.”