Access to COVID-19 testing illustrates divisions on court

Hays County has been following CDC guidelines on who gets tested for COVID-19 – basically, health care providers, people in high-risk groups with symptoms and first responders.

As of Tuesday, May 5, results of 1961 tests had been reported to the County Health Department and of that, 183 were positive and 1,761 negative.

After weeks of uncertainty about the availability of tests for those populations, the county now has an excess, according to County Judge Ruben Becerra, who referred to tests “on the shelf.” But opening up access to people not in a high-risk group who have shown no symptoms took heat at an emergency meeting of the Commissioners Court on May 1 when Becerra suggested offering testing to local small businesses spooked about reopening.

As is becoming a weekly occurrence, Becerra and Pct. 4 Commissioner Walt Smith went head to head over the issue, with Becerra saying employees might be more willing to return to work if they knew everyone had been tested. Smith countered that would provide a false sense of security, as every day presents a new opportunity
for someone to be infected.

Becerra wanted to use a portion of the money allocated for small business retention to be used to provide tests, while Smith suggested the businesses should pay for its employees to be tested, should they deem it necessary.

Smith said the county might need the unused tests if infections surge in the fall or winter. “We need to be very cognizant. I would rather err on the side of testing those the CDC tells us we should test and have those tests available in the fall should we will need them.”

Smith again seemed to suggest the county’s 10 testing sites is too many. “The facilities we have now, some are
considering closing because the don’t have the numbers coming in.” He also spoke about hospitals that had reserved whole floors for coronavirus patients and medical professionals being furloughed. He said concerning workers whose place of business is opening up, “economics” will make the decision whether to go or not.

Becerra said his idea came from personal experience. “I know personally of seven businesses in our current one-mile radius that are not open” because employees fear exposure. Testing small business employees who are not
sick would help to provide a “snapshot” that might “give folks a chance to breathe easy.” He said if people were found to be asymptomatic but capable of spreading the virus they could “shape the way they behave” correspondingly.

The types and availability of testing has consumed much of the court’s time for several weeks, with no clear direction moving forward. A deal Becerra struck with a telemedicine firm didn’t pan out as planned. During Friday’s special meeting, Pct. 3 Commissioner Lon Shell wondered aloud if someone couldn’t come up with a plan to put to a vote.

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