A steady number of people without the fever or cough or any other telltale symptoms of COVID-19 streamed into the AT&T Center Wednesday requesting a rapid test for coronavirus.
The testing, provided free by the nonprofit Community Labs through a contract with the City of San Antonio, lets residents who are asymptomatic but concerned they may be infected learn whether they could be spreading the virus without knowing it.
The new testing site supplements those already established at the Cuellar and Ramirez community centers and kicked off the day after data from John Hopkins University showed Texas, the nation’s second-most populous state, has become the first state with more than 1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases.
The true number of infections is likely higher because many people haven’t been tested, according to an AP report about the latest data, and studies suggest people can be infected and not feel sick.
Metro Health data shows that more than half a million coronavirus tests have been processed in Bexar County to-date. The current positivity rate is 8.4 percent. Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger attributes any progress the city has made to control the virus to the widespread availability of testing both sick and asymptomatic individuals and the “constant reminder and enforcement” of mask-use and social distancing.
In September, Community Labs began working with BioBridge Global to provide mass testing of asymptomatic individuals, first in the Somerset school district, and now the general public. The Edgewood district also on Wednesday began providing assurance testing in its schools.
As of Sunday, Community Labs has processed 11,941 tests with 157 resulting in a positive result, said a spokeswoman. Most came from the city’s testing sites.
It might be too soon to tell if testing asymptomatic people will have an impact on the area’s control of the virus, but such testing could help identify super-spreaders who are not feeling sick before an outbreak occurs, said Eric Epley, executive director of the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council (STRAC). “That would be a big benefit,” he said.
On Tuesday, officials reported there were 332 new positive cases in Bexar County, an increase from 174 cases from two weeks prior. The seven-day average is trending up, though not sharply, mirroring the average positive case totals the county experienced in June just before a summertime spike of over 1,600 daily cases.
Epley said he is cautiously optimistic that the county seems to be controlling the spread right now, but “we’re watching this like a hawk,” Epley said. “We’re watching all the different indicators and signs every single day. I’m talking to the hospitals, the health care systems, every single day … So the constant monitoring is in place.
“We just need to stay resolute and keep doing what we’ve been doing as a community,” and that includes social distancing, hand washing, wearing face masks, and staying home. “I sound like a broken record sometimes,” he said. “But those are the things at our disposal.”
But Epley, who calls himself “the health care guy” because he monitors the hospitalization, ICU, and ventilator rates more closely than other indicators, admits he is concerned about the approaching holiday season, a time when families and friends tend to gather and celebrate.
“Small social gatherings seem to be where a lot of the spread can occur,” he said.
The STRAC health system stress score for San Antonio is currently in a normal range, meaning local hospitals are able to accomodate the current numbers of hospitalizations.
The state’s Emergency Medical Task Force has sent San Antonio medical providers to places such as El Paso to assist that community with a recent surge of COVID-related hospitalizations. And because El Paso’s hospitals have exceeded capacity, 61 severely ill patients have been transferred from intensive care units in that city to San Antonio hospitals.
A holiday surge in cases in Bexar County could mean a stop to those transfers.
“It’s fully within our control to slow or stop the flow of patients from El Paso, but right now we have good capacity,” Epley said. “And if your neighbor is in trouble, and you’re in a relatively good position, it only makes common sense that we would [help].
“Later on this winter, we may be the ones that need help.”