Hidalgo County: Public testing for COVID-19 not currently available locally

EDINBURG — Hidalgo County officials said Friday that public testing for COVID-19 locally is not currently available and there is no timeline for when it will be made available.

COVID-19 testing kits were received by a state testing facility in Harlingen just Thursday.

“The local response laboratory in Harlingen, yesterday afternoon at around 2 in the afternoon, did receive the supplies and equipment necessary to start testing for COVID-19. However, that is a state laboratory. Our hospitals, our doctors offices can collect samples,” Health and Human Services Coordinator Eddie Olivarez said. “…In coordination with the health department, those samples can be sent to the state laboratory in Harlingen. But I want to make it very clear: there is no public testing and there is no on-demand testing. None.”

As a for instance, the county health official went on to say that he could not “just walk up and say I want to be tested.”

Olivarez added: “We don’t have that capability as of right now. I know there’s other parts of the country and other parts of the world that are doing that. Currently, we are not at that state here in South Texas or in Texas that I’m aware of.”

In a noontime address Friday in which a statewide disaster declaration was made, Gov. Greg Abbott said San Antonio is the first to officially open a drive-thru testing site.

According to Olivarez, there are no cases of the coronavirus in the county — a fact which Abbott indirectly reiterated when he named the counties with cases and didn’t list Hidalgo County. No one, however, has been tested for the virus locally because they don’t meet state criteria for testing.

“The state criteria and the CDC criteria: have you travelled to a high risk country? Have you traveled and been in a high risk area of the United States? Have you been in contact with someone who’s been confirmed for COVID-19? If you meet those, then we can look at some others,” Olivarez said. “Are you symptomatic, do you have the symptoms showing? If you meet those criteria, testing will proceed. Testing can be done at the doctors office or at the hospital and then it can be forwarded to the state lab in Texas. That’s as of yesterday afternoon.”

While Olivarez said some test kits were issued to private sector physicians, he wasn’t sure what institutions in the county currently possessed testing kits.

“I just got off the phone with one of our larger hospitals here in Hidalgo County. They have no test kits. They have no test kits, alright. Test kit availability is very limited,” he said, noting that while he does not have a list of the physicians who may be in possession of test kits, he knows of one who does. “I only know of one, but I don’t know who the rest of them are. We’re trying to get that list because that was a private transaction (and) did not involve the health department.

“In my opinion, it should have involved the health department. But it didn’t.”

The county is currently trying to track down those testing kits and “reinforce” to physician offices with these kits to follow guidelines.

“They can’t just go rogue and start testing randomly. We’re trying to explore all that information,” he said.

Another matter to consider, according to Olivarez, is that testing conducted without meeting state and CDC criteria could create a backlog.

Olivarez said there are other ways for physicians to examine individuals who think they might have been exposed to the coronavirus.

“We are asking, Hidalgo County health is asking all physicians if they have any suspected cases that meet the guidance that they do a respiratory panel assessment first,” he said. “That respiratory panel assessment must be done because it will rule out any other illness that may mimic COVID-19.”

Olivarez also gave advice to individuals suspecting they may have been exposed to the virus.

“If you’ve traveled to any of these high-risk areas or been exposed to someone who’s been confirmed and you are symptomatic, call your doctor, coordinate with your doctor what direction to go before that is done. That way it limits any potential exposure of other people, so that’s very important. That’s how it should be done properly,” he said.

mwilson@themonitor.com