Starr County shutting down drive-thru COVID-19 testing site

Dr. Jose Vazquez (center), along with Rose Benavidez, the president of the Starr County Industrial Foundation, and Rio Grande City Manager Alberto Perez unveil the new location for the county’s drive-thru testing site during a news conference on June 4, 2020. (Monitor photo)

Starr County’s COVID-19 drive-thru testing site, the first such facility in the Rio Grande Valley, will shut down on Friday after administering thousands of tests since it opened in March.

The county announced Tuesday in a post on social media that the testing site would close as of Friday.

Explaining why he and the county commissioners made the decision to close the site, Starr County Judge Eloy Vera explained there just simply wasn’t a need for it anymore.

“We’re getting very low testing done in our facility,” Vera said.

For the last three or four weeks, the county has been averaging six to seven people per day, according to Vera, who added those small numbers don’t warrant the resources the county puts toward running the site such as peace officers, traffic control and equipment.

“When we first started, there were lines of cars, lining up to get tested because we were the only game in town,” he said. “Since then, now, just about all the medical clinics and the medical doctors in our community are offering that service.”

Some clinics, he added, can provide test results within 15 minutes, giving them an advantage over the county’s site which has a turnaround time of a few days.

In the absence of the testing site, Vera said their residents with insurance could still go to those private clinics for testing.

For people without insurance or who can’t afford to pay for it, he said the mobile testing site run by the Texas National Guard would offer testing there two days out of the week.

“If for some reason, there’s a case where they need to be tested immediately and the National Guard is not in town, then we’re trying to negotiate something with the hospital so that they could do it and then bill the county and we will pay the hospital,” Vera said. “We’re negotiating that right now, hopefully we’ll have something in place in the next few days.”

During a news conference Wednesday, Dr. Antonio Falcon, the Starr County health authority, said he supported the decision to close the site.

“We are at a very comfortable situation in our county right now,” Falcon said. “We haven’t had a death reported in the last 10 to 15 days or so — that, in comparison, to the middle of the summer when we had as many as 50 deaths reported in a 10-day period.”

Falcon added that from Oct. 13-19, the county had 28 confirmed cases of the coronavirus disease, 16 of which were from Rio Grande City, 11 were from Roma and one was from San Isidro.

Broken down by age, four of those individuals were 19 years old or younger and 24 of them were older than 19.

The National Guard also tested 150 from the Rio Grande City school district, Falcon said, and only one tested positive.

The student was “quarantined appropriately” by the Texas Department of State Health Services.

At Starr County Memorial Hospital, a total of eight COVID-19 patients were admitted from Oct. 14-21, according to Eloy Garza, a hospital administrator, who also spoke at Wednesday’s news conference. As of Wednesday, there were two active COVID-19 patients there.

“One patient from an in-patient setting was transferred to another facility and two patients from the ER were transferred to another facility,” Garza said, adding that one of those patients from the ER had to be intubated.

“We currently have 218 doses of remdesivir available which translates to treatment for 35 patients,” Garza said. “We did test, this past week, 20 patients for influenza and we had one positive case.”

The Starr County hospital does not have convalescent plasma in-house, Garza said, but it is available upon request through a partnership with DHR Health Institute for Research and Development.

Falcon tried to ease any possible concerns of insufficient testing, adding that the hospital would be able to handle the amount needed.

“The hospital, alone, can probably handle all of the testing that needs to be required but there are other entities that will be available,” Falcon said.