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COVID-19 cases explode as county cracks down on information release

The number of COVID-19 cases is exploding in Hays County along with the number of people willing to wait for hours in order to be tested for the virus. And only weeks after being allowed by Gov. Greg Abbott to open in increments, scores of businesses are closing down in the wake of employees testing positive.

Though not mandated to do so, many of those businesses have gone public about their situation and social media is abuzz with theories about it all. Some businesses have even done their own “contact tracing,” letting recent patrons know of positive COVID-19 tests.

All that sets the stage for more public information, not less, according to State Rep. Erin Zwiener. In an open letter to the Hays County commissioners court and the county’s local health department last week, Zwiener called for them to work on testing, contact tracing, “public-facing” communications and transparency.

Zwiener was on the scene Sunday in San Marcos, when 701 people were tested – some after waiting for hours – in what was the first opportunity since the pandemic hit for people to get a test without having symptoms or a doctor’s referral.

While she believes additional open, free testing also scheduled by the Texas Department of Emergency Management this week will have a smoother go, Zwiener said the numbers on Sunday demonstrate the urgent need for a permanent, drive-up, no appointment needed site.

“San Marcos has a desperate need for that,” she said.

She’d also like to see regular, public briefings on the coronavirus and its countywide impact.

“I’m a State Representative and I don’t know what the county is doing. If I don’t know, the press and public don’t know either and that is alarming.”

Zwiener also took issue with the county’s process of contact tracing and its refusal, at least so far, to take advantage of the state’s offer to help. The county has the option, Zwiener said, of asking the State Department of Health Services to help with initial contact tracing.

“They have so far turned that down,” she said, couching that with the fact that there have been questions about the company the state awarded the contact tracing contract to.

What HIPAA laws say about the release of information also troubles Zwiener.

“I understand that balancing essential HIPAA protections and public information can be a challenge, and protecting patients’ anonymity is essential,” she wrote in her open letter. “However, I am concerned about a pattern of the county not releasing trend data on the grounds that it would violate HIPAA protections, even as other counties release similar data. Trend data doesn’t threaten patient anonymity and gives our local leaders and the public  information they need to protect their communities.”

She said now is the time for more transparency. “I think we’re in a bad spot. In a week, we’ve had one out of every 500 people in Hays County test positive. We are seeing an exponential rise.”

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