COVID testing may require public/private partnership

COVID-19 testing for the general public administered by the Texas Department of Emergency Management (TDEM) and the National Guard has been a huge success in Hays County but will soon be phased out.

The line outside the Hays CISD’s Performing Arts Center (PAC) on Saturday as people lined up for free COVID-19 testing was two hours long.

That had commissioners and County Judge Ruben Becerra floating a lot of ideas during their meeting June 30 about how to fill the expected gap in the capacity to test for the coronavirus just as thousands of Texas State University return to town for summer school — which will only worsen the county’s standing as an acknowledged national hot spot for the extremely contagious virus.

The TDEM testing was conducted for 10 days at the Hays CISD Performing Arts Center and was open to all who showed up, with neither residency or symptoms required.

On Monday, June 29, 697 people were tested, bringing the total as of that date to 4,580, Chief of Staff and Emergency Management Coordinator Alex Villalobos told the court. A second round of testing at San Marcos High School will run July 12-16 but after that the program will cease.

He said that’s expected to be a temporary lapse in capacity as laboratories backlogged with tests struggle to catch up; however he could provide no dates for any redeployment of state assistance. “All the large labs are backlogged across the region,” Villalobos said, also acknowledging that residents of other counties have come to Hay for the free, unrestricted TDEM testing.

The best path going forward, Becerra said, is enlarging on one that has already been forged — public/private partnerships, which he called the “evolution of testing.”

“I’m grateful to have the state helping us … but we are a national hot spot. Public private partnerships are more nimble and able to use a myriad of testing components.” The county already has agreements with Live Oak health partners and Premier ER and the latter could be beefed up and possibly supply personnel for testing and laboratory work were the county to purchase mobile building “pods.” Mike Jones of the county emergency services said that “Premier brings staff already capable,” to staff infrastructure set up by the county for $2,500 per day. Jones recommended multiple testing sites to avoid “a single point of failure.”

He also said Communicate is interested in seeing if they can be a partner.

There were unresolved questions where the $966,000 in CARES funding could be used to purchase the suggested four pods.

Pct. 3 Commissioner Lon Shell stressed the need to have something up and running due to the influx of college students for Texas State’s second session of summer school, which starts July 6.

“We’re going to have a great demand,” Shell said. “We need to prepare ourselves for what’s about to happen with the university. Time is of the essence.”

Pct. 4 Commissioner Walt Smith, who raised his concerns about Texas State’s summer school during the court’s last meeting, wondered, “If we’re struggling right now” with testing and laboratory work, “what’s it going to be like in 30 days.” He also noted that other Tier 1 universities across the state are not holding in-person summer school even though they include larger schools with more resources.

Director of Countywide Operations Tammy Crumley said the county’s epidemiologist Eric Schneider had a call last week with the director of the university’s health department but ‘they haven’t budged” on delaying the start of classes.

Pct. 2 Commissioner Mark Jones suggested it might be time for Becerra, San Marcos Mayor Jane Hughson and University President Dr. Denise Trauth sit down and discuss the situation.

Becerra indicated casting blame doesn’t solve problems. “People want to blame a holiday, blame a protest, blame the River or blame Lowe’s. We’re all in this together and we’ve got to find a unified way forward.”

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