By Brad Brooks and Andrew Hay
(Reuters) – Each day, hundreds of residents of Galveston County, Texas, are tested for the new coronavirus. Free diagnostic tests are being offered to anyone over the age of seven and the county has enough test kits to last a month.
Few U.S. counties are testing for the coronavirus as aggressively as Galveston, a county nearly as big as Rhode Island that stretches along the Texas Gulf Coast southeast of Houston. Health experts say residents there are being tested at a rate three times the national average.
As Texas prepares to lift some stay-at-home restrictions in early May, health and municipal authorities have moved beyond just testing those with symptoms to the more ambitious job of surveillance testing of the general population. That means attempting to trace every contact of a person found to be infected to quarantine them and contain the virus.
But like other counties across the country, it faces bottlenecks in testing capacity, shortages of materials like swabs used for taking samples and not enough workers to track cases.
Galveston’s successes – and frustrations – are emblematic of what counties across the nation will face in trying to expand testing to a level health experts say is needed to safely begin to reopen battered economies without igniting new outbreaks.
Local officials in this staunchly Republican part of Texas hope the federal government will provide test materials, lessening the need to compete with other localities across the country.
“There are certain realities we had to face, and one was that the federal government has had a very difficult time trying to coordinate any of this,” said county health chief Philip Keiser, an infectious disease expert and university professor.
The Trump administration has said states have responsibility for testing and Vice President Mike Pence says there is enough test capacity to begin reopening the economy. Many states and health officials, Republicans and Democrats, dispute that.
SCOUR THE PLANET
Keiser watched with mounting concern as his county’s coronavirus-related per capita death rate rose to three times that of neighboring Houston. With no sign of federal support on the horizon, he opened two drive-thru clinics that are now testing around 360 people per day.
Another 440 people are being tested daily at the local hospital, the University of Texas Medical Branch-Galveston (UTMB).
All told, Galveston so far has tested around 3% of the county’s more than 340,000 residents. That compares with national testing running at around 1% of the U.S. population, according to John Hopkins University data.
UTMB, which is providing all testing materials and processing for Galveston County, has about 30 days worth of supplies left at the current rate of testing.
Chris Toomes, head of UTMB’s supply chain, said the hospital placed bulk orders on supplies for up to 40,000 tests in February.
“We put two of our own buyers in the lab to work directly with the lab team to scour the planet for supplies,” Toomes said. “We knew everybody at some point was going to want these materials.”
Most of the items came from China, Mexico and the United States. The next shipment of testing materials is estimated to arrive in late May, but Toomes said he expects delays.
He would like to see the federal government use its muscle to buy large quantities of testing materials and distribute them to states, something several governors have been pleading for.
“Six months ago you would have laughed about a swab being such a big deal,” Toomes said. “Now it’s one of the most priceless things you can get your hands on.”
Kathy Barroso, chief executive of the Galveston County Health District, said she siphoned off dozens of staff members from other areas and even put local dentists to work to help with testing and contact tracing. In total, she has about 200 people to test and trace – but more are needed.
“From the federal government, we’re going to need funding for tests and staffing if we want to continue making testing a high priority,” Barroso said.
Keiser wants more surveillance testing to isolate hotspots as the county relaxes stay-at-home restrictions in hopes of limiting a second wave of infections once beaches and businesses fully reopen.
Galveston County, which has about 480 confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to a Reuters tally, has yet to achieve the two-week decline in daily cases recommended for economic reopening. Still, only around 2% of tests at its drive-through facilities are coming back positive, a low-single-digit level public health experts look for before restarting an economy.
“Nobody really knows what an opening will look like,” says Keiser. “And that’s something that as this goes along, we’re all becoming more comfortable with, that we don’t know what the right thing to do is, and that the best thing is to just do something.”
(Reporting By Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas and Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Bill Berkrot)