COVID-19 Testing in Carthage

A health care worker performs a nasal swab Friday, April 24, 2020, to test for coronavirus in a walk-up patient at a mobile testing site in Carthage.

A spike and subsequent decrease in COVID-19 cases here in Panola County is being touted as an example of containment that Texas will use going forward as the state continues to re-open, Gov. Greg Abbott said in a Monday press conference.

Both Panola and Shelby Counties are being used as an example of areas where COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred and have been contained. Abbott said the state has seen no evidence or signs that raise concerns and would point to a retrenchment in his reopening plan.

“We have seen outbreaks take place in some other regions in the state of Texas. I’ll mention Shelby and Panola County in East Texas, I’ll mention Washington County as three examples of where there were outbreaks for different reasons, but those outbreaks were contained and even though they had a spike in people testing positive, that spike soon receded and has returned to a normal rate,” Abbott said.

Panola County has recorded a cumulative total of 176 positive cases and 20 deaths as of Monday. County Judge LeeAnn Jones said Monday she didn’t know if the county had hit its spike or not, but she was working to confirm several more cases and maybe one more nursing home death.

“If we haven’t hit our spike and he opened to 50 percent, we may be doomed,” she said. “I don’t know other than it has been very stressful. We say things have slowed, but like today I have four I am waiting to release. I don’t know what the magic number is.”

More than a third of the county’s cases are from the Briarcliff Skilled Nursing Center, which was reporting on its website Monday that it had five residents and one staff member die from the virus. Jones, in a breakdown released Sunday, said 67 of the county’s cases were at Briarcliff.

Jones said 32 more cases were at Panola Nursing and Rehabilitation, and the facility was reporting on its website Monday that five of its residents had died. Jones said 60 of Panola’s cases are in the general public and two cases were from UT Health.

Fifteen of the county’s cases have stemmed from the Tyson plant in Carthage, Jones said. Jones has reported 22 total cases from Tyson if you include non-county residents. At least one employee at the Tyson plant told the Watchman they were told in a meeting that there were 33 cases. Tyson’s corporate office previously said it would not confirm the number of cases or locations of cases at its facilities because it’s an ever-changing situation.

The biggest daily increases in cases in Panola County came toward the end of April and early May. Reports of new confirmed cases in Panola County have slowed in recent weeks and are no longer coming every day as they did at the end of April — and the total number of confirmed cases has been revised down several times after Judge Jones found duplication errors in her data.

A surge team responded to Carthage in Panola County on April 28, according to data released by the governor’s office in early May. The teams are comprised of health officials, emergency response workers and the National Guard that provide help to facilities such as nursing homes, meatpacking plants and prisons.

The state has also hosted two drive-thru testing opportunities for the general public.

Abbott said the state believes similar situations will play out in Amarillo and El Paso, where the number of COVID-19 cases has spiked recently. Amarillo, Abbott noted, had the fastest growth of COVID-19 in the state, largely because of meatpacking plants. El Paso, he said, had a hospital capacity that was “too close for comfort.”

Surge response teams are working to increase testing and to maintain hospital capacity in those regions, Abbott said. Abbott said the state has two strategies to help increase hospital capacity should it be needed: halting elective surgeries and deploying surge strategies that would provide additional capacity for hospitals to treat patients.

“My point is that we’ve seen spikes happen before, we’ve seen the containment of spikes take place, and so we know how to do this,” Abbott said. “So as we move forward, we will be prepared to deal with spikes and expect a similar response in the future to the success we’ve seen in the past.”

During Monday’s press conference, Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner John Hellerstedt again reminded Texans to follow recommended guidelines for helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including:

  • wearing a face mask when out in public
  • frequently washing hands or using hand sanitizer
  • practicing good personal hygiene

“This is a test of us as Texans to make sure that we do care not only about ourselves but about each other and we take those steps that we are confident are going to allow us to open Texas and remain safe at the same time,” Hellerstedt said.

Reporter

Carthage native Meredith Shamburger has worked for the Panola Watchman since 2018. Before that, she worked at sister papers in Longview and Marshall; the Dallas Morning News; and The Daily Voice, a hyperlocal news company in Westchester County, New York.