In a push to increase coronavirus testing in rural areas, the Texas Military Department will roll out mobile testing facilities to more than two dozen small towns across the state.
Fredericksburg and Floresville are the first of 25 free testing locations the Texas Military Department and the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) are working to set up, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced in a press release Monday. The Texas Military Department includes the Texas Army National Guard, the Texas Air National Guard, and the Texas State Guard.
“When all teams are fully deployed, which will be later on this week, they will have the capability to collectively test around 3,500 people per day,” Abbott said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
However, as of late Wednesday and after multiple requests, none of the entities involved had yet released any information on testing locations, dates, or the procedures for getting a test. Guard forces are still coordinating their movements with state agencies, said Master Sgt. Mindy Bloem, public affairs officer for the 149th Fighter Wing of the Texas Air National Guard, in an email Wednesday.
In Floresville, around 30 people were tested Monday at a DSHS and Guard mobile unit in the parking lot of the local high school, Mayor Cecelia Gonzalez-Dippel said. Local officials learned about the testing site from state officials late Sunday and had little time to help publicize it, she said.
“I think it eased a lot of people’s minds in that they couldn’t get it any other way,” Gonzalez-Dippel said. “Of course, best-case scenario, we would have had at least a few more days to get the word out and get in as many people as we could.”
That testing site has since been removed, with no word on when it would be available again, she said.
The testing came after a coronavirus outbreak at the Frank M. Tejeda State Veterans Home in Floresville, where two residents have died after testing positive.
At a Fredericksburg fire station on Sunday, Guard members and DSHS workers tested 18 local emergency personnel as part of a training exercise, according to local officials. At the end of the training, the goal is to “make testing more readily available outside large metropolitan areas.”
“When the testing schedule is complete, community residents will receive a few days advance notice of testing in their area and will be able to make appointments through a call center,” City of Fredericksburg officials said in a news release Wednesday.
The Fredericksburg location will be open only to people showing symptoms of the coronavirus, and they must make appointments through the call center, the release states, adding that the DSHS has not yet released a full list of testing locations.
Abbott announced the deployment of 1,200 Guard personnel for coronavirus testing following assurances in an April 17 press conference that Texans would see testing ramp up for coronavirus across the state.
Texas has consistently been among the five states with the lowest testing numbers per capita, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project. As of late Wednesday, it was the fourth-lowest in the U.S.
So far, more than 216,000 tests have been administered in Texas, the vast majority by private labs. That’s around 0.7 percent of the state’s population.
The low testing rate is an important factor in understanding how the virus is spreading in Texas. Recent studies have shown that significant percentages of people who are infected might show no symptoms, even though they’re still contagious.
Unlike many rural areas, San Antonio has long had a free mass testing site available at Freeman Coliseum, the first of its kind to open in Texas, although testing is limited to people who meet certain criteria. On Tuesday, Abbott said more than 60 drive-up sites have popped up across the state.
Yet Abbott said in a press conference Tuesday that he has seen few people lined up for testing.
“I have received imaged of a lot of these testing sites being vacant or poorly attended,” Abbott said. “I don’t know if it’s because people are feeling like they don’t have any symptoms, they don’t have any need to go be tested, or if inadequate information is being provided to the public about the location and availability of these sites.”