Starr County working with state, local health officials for testing

As the scramble for resources to test for the coronavirus in the U.S. continues, Starr County officials are coordinating with local health institutions to be proactive in these efforts.

Starr County Memorial Hospital is equipped with 20 transportation kits with which samples will be taken of patients who qualify to be tested for COVID-19, and those samples will be transported to a certified lab, according Dr. Jose Vazquez, the county’s health authority.

“So far we have been doing that through the Texas Department of Health so we were reporting the cases to TDH. TDH was approving the testing to be conducted,” Vazquez said. “Then we would proceed with that testing and send that sample through TDH to the labs where they were performing these studies.”

But late this week, private companies were allowed to begin testing and Quest Diagnostics — one of the largest, privately owned lab companies in the country — began offering tests.

“So now, the hospital is contracting with Quest in order to conduct those studies and that apparently is going to (have) a turnaround of about 24 hours to get results which is a little less than what we had had right now which was around 48 hours,” Vazquez said.

Because it is TDH and not the local health authorities who control the testing, Vazquez said he did not know if anyone had been tested using those transportation kits.

He recalled a situation very early on in the process, before any cases were reported in the United States, in which a patient to his clinic had traveled to China and was suspected of possibly having contracted the novel coronavirus.

“At that point, we requested the patient to be tested and they denied on the basis that the risk factors were very low,” Vazquez said, later clarifying that the patient eventually recovered. “The patient did not come from the Wuhan Province, (they) came from somewhere else, so they were not allowing testing.”

“Since then, the situation has changed rapidly and every day, so now criteria are different,” he said. “However, from my office or from the hospital, labs have not been performed.”

There was another, more recent case from a few days ago in which the patient ultimately tested negative for the virus but only after they had died.

The patient died on Thursday for reasons that remain unclear.

“She was seen the day before at one of the private offices here for upper respiratory symptoms,” Vazquez said. “That patient died unexpectedly overnight and we were informed and we took due diligence in this case. We contacted TDH and we did perform testing on the patient who passed away.”

The negative results came back Friday afternoon.

“So that patient, I can confirm now … did not die of any coronavirus-related illness,” he said.

Their clinics are seeing an influx of patients with upper respiratory symptoms but said it was important to first eliminate the many other respiratory illnesses that could be the cause.

“There are so many other respiratory illnesses that share similar symptoms, so what we have put in place is the standard procedures and guidelines that CDC has given us,” Vazquez said. “So we are following guidelines and we are making sure that a patient who comes with respiratory symptoms are ruled out for any other possible disease.”

He added that the county has been holding many meetings over the last three days involving officials from various entities including the school district, the hospital, law enforcement, adult day care centers, nursing homes and different clinics.

“We have addressed the situation under each organization’s point of view,” he said.

On Friday, some of those entities implemented hotlines that people can call if they have questions or concerns regarding the coronavirus.

Through those hotlines, those organizations will work to guide people on what to do if they were to present upper respiratory symptoms.

“We have symptoms that will rule in the possibility of the disease — mainly cough, fever, and in severe cases, shortness of breath — then there are symptoms that could rule out the disease: diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, sore throat, ear infections,” he said.

“So basically we are trying to look for any other possible cause for fever and coughing rather or before we could think that this patient may be a person of interest for a coronavirus infection.”