As reports of testing efforts for coronavirus around the country surface, results show Texas is lagging to meet its testing demands. A local epidemiologist says that is not the case in Hays County. As of June 1, there were 335 cases reported in the county from more than 4,000 tests. Four residents have died, and 184 have recovered.

Having tested less than 2% of the Hays County population of 230,191 people, a question arises: Is Hays County meeting its testing demands? The answer is yes, according to Hays County epidemiologist Eric Schneider.

“I think we are meeting the needs of anybody who needs a test and [anyone who] is seeking a test can find a way to get tested right now in Hays County,” Schneider said.

According to Schneider, the single-digit testing percentage rate in the county does not reflect a limited supply of COVID-19 testing, but rather a lack of residents seeking to get tested.

"We’re not testing near to the capacity that we actually could. We have plenty of places—many free places—where people can be tested, but we can only put the water out; we can’t make the horse drink from it,” Schneider said.

The county has three public testing facilities,
free of charge for county residents. Tests are also available for uninsured, underinsured and those who do not have funds to purchase a test.

According to Schneider, not one public testing site of the county is being used to its full capacity.

Live Oak Partners Community Clinic in San Marcos, one of the two medical facilities the county has partnered up with to provide free testing, has tested about 60 people in the past eight weeks, according to a spokesperson from Live Oak.

Another facility, to which Schneider cannot provide a name for to prevent residents from showing up without a referral from the Hays County Local Health Department, has tested around 270 people over the past eight weeks.

Community Impact Newspaper could not obtain from officials an exact number of free tests available at each public testing site to compare the testing capacity of each facility versus the number of tests conducted.

Reaching rural parts of the county

Additional testing efforts by the county include pop-up testing sites, many with the goal of reaching rural populations. Testing is more readily available along I-35 near the cities of San Marcos, Kyle and Buda, according to officials.

On May 10, the county offered two free testing sites for residents away from the I-35 corridor through a partnership with the Texas Department of Health and Human Services along with the Texas Army National Guard.

Both sites combined had the capacity to test about 200 residents, according to Schneider, but only a total of 96 people were tested that day by the National Guard.

To attest to an adequate supply of molecular tests in Hays County is its rapid response to complete testing in all six nursing home facilities a few days after Gov. Greg Abbott required all nursing homes in Texas to be tested for COVID-19.

Hays County tested all six of its nursing facilities in five days—the testing was completed by May 22.

It took a countywide task force to complete the testing. It consisted of personnel from the San Marcos Fire Department, Kyle Fire Department, Buda Fire Department, North Hays Fire Rescue, South Hays Fire Department, San Marcos Emergency Management, Hays County Health Department and San Marcos Hays County Emergency Medical Services.

Once completed, 967 tests were performed on residents and staff of nursing homes, and all tests returned negative, according to Schneider.

Officials from My Emergency Room 24/7, a full-service emergency room providing private testing in the county, would not say how many molecular tests were in stock but assured there was an “adequate” supply of COVID-19 testing.

“Over the past month, we have done more than 100 COVID-19 tests,” Amanda Blevins, a spokesperson for My Emergency Room 24/7, wrote in a statement.

My Emergency Room 24/7 services about 150-250 patients a month, according to Blevins.

Officials with Baylor Scott & White Health-Buda, another medical provider offering private testing in Hays County, would not say how many tests were conducted in the county or how many tests were in stock.

Schneider, who has been working closely with medical professionals, said private testing sites were experiencing a lack of patients seeking testing, much like the county.

“My understanding is that any place that is doing testing, whether it’s an urgent care [facility] or stand-alone clinic, my understanding is that they’re not meeting their full capacity, either. They’re not overwhelmed in any sort of way as far as testing goes,” Schneider said.

Schneider believes that the lack of residents seeking testing is due to the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urging people to not seek non-essential medical attention during March.

Katie Carpenter, a resident from San Marcos who got tested during the early stages of the pandemic, said she never thought about getting tested until her obstetrician put it on her radar.

“It’s not the first thing I thought of to get tested until my [obstetrician] suggested it,” Carpenter said. “It wasn’t a pleasant experience taking the test.”

Because Carpenter got tested during the early days of the pandemic, no public testing sites were available in the county, and she had to travel to Austin to get tested at a Baylor Scott & White Health drive-thru.

“It all felt surreal. It seems like it was a year ago that I got tested,” Carpenter said.

Hays County is on par with the country

Though the county has only tested about 2% of its population, Schneider said the number that is important to him is the number of new cases per week. He also suggested that the testing rate in the county was standard for the trends seen across the United States.

“The numbers that I’m looking at is the number of new cases per week, not so much at our total case count because that’s going to continue to climb with every case that we get, or even active case counts,” Schneider said.

Since Abbott has relaxed restrictions and has allowed businesses to slowly reopen, Schneider said he has seen a spike in new case numbers.

“I guarantee that as businesses open up, we’re going to see a second wave with more people and even larger than the first wave,” Schneider said. “It’s not slowing down. In fact, we’re nowhere near the end of this; I don’t think we’re even close to the peak of this. Unfortunately, I don’t see us peaking for a few more months.”

Schneider said he would like to test as many people as possible as it would help identify potential virus clusters and boost contact tracing in the county as it always seems to hit a dead end.

“I guarantee you that there are more cases out there than what I have accounted for by lab confirmation,” Schneider said.