The Story vs. The Narrative: How Bad Is The Coronavirus Situation In Nueces County? We May Never Know Unless There Is More Transparency

Matt Pierce-Briscoe

The spread of coronavirus infections has taken a “swift and very dangerous turn” in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott has warned on Sunday in Dallas. 

“Over just the past few weeks, the daily number of cases have gone from an average of about 2,000, to more than 5,000 a day,” he said. 

Here in Nueces County the daily new infection rate was 188 new cases, but that number is likely incomplete and results that are expected to be released early this week will likely be much higher. 

Just as the other major population centers in Texas, Corpus Christi has recorded a surge in cases after lockdown. The number of reported infections in Nueces county sit just below 2,000. Locally, seven have died. 

The spike has led officials in Texas and other states to tighten restrictions on business again, with warnings that hospitals may soon be overwhelmed.

On Sunday, Gov. Abbott said that as many as 5,000 people a day were being admitted to hospital for treatment. Vice-President Mike Pence said that Texas would be issued additional Covid-19 testing kits for as long was necessary. “We are going to make sure that Texas, and your healthcare system in Texas, have the resources, have the supplies, have the personnel to meet this moment.” 

The vice-president also urged Texans to wear masks “wherever it’s indicated”, saying “we know from experience, it will slow the spread of the coronavirus.”

In Nueces County, there is an order in place that would have citizens wear masks when in some places, but only make it a strong recommendation in others. Some worry that the local response is not going far enough. 

It was almost as if local government officials here in Nueces County were buying into the state backed notion that everything was going fine. Local testing rates were among the lowest in the state, per capita and the overall infection rate was nearly unbelievable. At the peak of the first wave the number of infections ranked among the lowest in the state and the measures that were in place seemed to be working. But this week public officials and researchers called this wave a “tsunami.” 

Employees with the city claim that internal conversations lent toward the suggestion that there could be as many as 500 new cases per day in Nueces County alone in the coming weeks. While that’s number might seem high, that number is a reality. 

Why Nueces County is in much worse shape than you think.

These were statements made by the Health Department Director, City Manager and TAMUCC researchers in the last week.

This week local officials also confirmed that it takes a week sometimes to get the results of tests back from public health labs. We also learned that some public testing locations like the Coastal Bend Wellness Foundation are booked for testing through July 15th.

Not all hospitals or urgent care centers are using the rapid test except in certain cases. 

“We’re projecting 750 new cases a day sometime next week,” is what one city official told us this week. That is what has them concerned and for good reason. 

Administrators from area hospitals seem to be sticking to their narrative that “all is well” when it comes to the local availability of hospital beds and staff. The problem is that the narrative being pushed by hospital officials doesn’t add up with the data. 

In a text message sent to Judge Canales, Mayor McComb, County Commissioners and City Council members, City Manager Peter Zanoni said: 

“The area has sufficient hospital beds and ventilators; however, we are in the process of getting additional nursing staff from the State Operations Center to manage the increased patient load.”

He also said that Monday there will be a strategic planning session for businesses and nursing homes that have positives. The Health Department will reaching out to all nursing homes with new protocols that they are putting in place for positive residents.

If hospital bed and staff availability is doing just fine, then why would there be a need to reach out to the state for more staff and supplies? This is where the narrative doesn’t fit the data. 

It is obvious that public health officials and crisis managers do not think that citizens of Corpus Christi cannot handle being told just how bad things really are here in Corpus Christi. 

On Sunday Health officials said that they had 80 patients recovering in the hospital. 18 of them were in the intensive care unit. According to administrators and managers that number is well within their capabilities. However, data reported from the state of Texas shows that the 11 county trauma services region that encompasses Nueces County had 10 available ICU beds and 308 available hospital beds. 

Statewide on Sunday overall hospital capacity was recorded at 77% capacity. Just like it was during the first wave of the pandemic response the question remains as to why it seems Corpus Christi would be the exception to the rule? Especially with the increased number of positive cases, increased hospitalizations and high number of medical staff reporting that they are out sick or awaiting testing. 

The answer is that as the public relations managers work overtime trying to control the narrative in an obvious attempt to keep public reaction at bay, the data is telling a totally different story and so are the people who are on the frontlines. 

On Sunday there was a flurry of activity with what appeared to be test kits, medical supplies and other response related materials arriving into Corpus Christi. Sunday afternoon saw boxes of testing supplies arriving by air and heading the Waves Resort complex where testing will be conducted this week. One pilot told us that it is a daily routine flying somewhere to deliver medical supplies and Corpus Christi is an “up and comer” on the list. 

“We are not in good shape here,” one nurse told us as she was leaving Christus Spohn Hospital Shoreline on Saturday. “We aren’t supposed to talk to you guys but I don’t think I am telling you anything that people don’t already know.” 

She said that there had been a rush to clear beds of lesser ill patients who might normally be given a choice to stay in the hospital or go home. She expects that if there is a sudden surge of patients there would have to be drastic changes. 

“I know 5 co-workers who are suffering from it today,” she said. “I just try not to think about it and just care for these folks. They deserve that.” 

Each year area hospitals take public money and something that the public deserves is an explanation of what they are doing to keep it. Some argue that Christus Health has never really been a truly viable community partner when it comes to public health. In fact, on Friday the state gave approval for construction of a multi-million dollar COVID-19 unit at the Memorial Hospital site. When it is all said and done, Christus stands to end up with a pretty attractive deal—at least as it was present a few months ago to Nueces County Commissioners. 

“One thing that you always notice is that they (Christus Health) is always on the look out for a way to sweeten the pot for themselves,” says Rolondo Sanchez, who isn’t thrilled about the move.”I was here in 1998, I believe it was when they started to come into the picture. The people of Corpus Christi were not overly thrilled about it then and most of us who live over here aren’t overly thrilled with them now.” 

By “over here,” Sanchez means the area around the former Christus Spohn Memorial Hospital. He says that it serves as a reminder that the lower income residents who call the area once had a place to get the best possible care. 

“It is a memorial alright,” he says. “A memorial to what we once had. I’m scared that if I get it (coronavirus) that I will be sent over there.” 

But the staff at area hospitals are the ones who are dealing with the problems and giving it all that they have. 

Another nurse that we spoke with on Saturday said that confusion is part of the problem. 

“The reason they aren’t talking to ya’ll and the reason they don’t want us talking to you is because things are still kind of messy right now,” she said. “I think we are waiting on more help to get here or something. We need it.” 

But not everybody who gets coronavirus ends up in the hospital. In fact, a fairly small percentage are—at least right now. However, County Judge Barbara Canales does kind of have an “I told you so” in order when it is all said and done. But that comes with a caveat—why did it seem like local officials let up the fight? Did they buy into Gov. Abbott’s now failed plan and become complacent in our success? 

Corpus Christi and Nueces County followed Abbott’s order perfectly when it came to the reopening of Texas. In fact, they even let up on holding their daily press briefings, which they will resume at 5 pm on Monday. Researchers showed that for the most part things were allowed to go back pretty much to normal before the new wave came pipelining ashore. But that data points the blame somewhere else—back at us for pretending that things were going to be just fine. 

The problem was that the narrative didn’t fit the story and that while things were looking like they were going to fine, the firestorm we see today was slowly taking its toll. But like with everything, some would have listened and others would have argued. 

But now that it is here for the second time, what happens when you wade through the red tape and finally do get a Covid-19 test and say it does come back positive? There is an answer for that, too. 

“We’re asking people who test positive to call their contacts and let them know they’ve had contact with an infected person and ask them to get tested,” officials said this past week. 

Isn’t that the job of contact tracers? It is—if Texas had enough of them. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) Texas has somewhere around 3,500 contact tracers currently on the ground working around the state. With 5,000 new cases a day hitting the state’s record book that number doesn’t make sense either. 

“We are working on that,” a DSHS spokesperson said on Friday. “Don’t physically make contact with those that you have come into contact with, but you should let them know.” 

But then there is still the question about getting a test in the first place. 

Places like urgent care centers and hospitals can often get lab results back fairly quickly. However, the Health Department has to send tests to a state or state contracted lab for analysis and that takes time to get those results. 

Those who transport the specimens tell us that they make at least one flight per day. 

“Some of them are public tests and others are from private labs that need additional analysis,” said one of the transport pilots. “I don’t really think about it. It is just something that we do.” 

On Sunday, Civil Air Patrol flights were active around the state in what contacts there confirm as support missions for the boots on the ground. 

They say that they are excited to be called into help. 

Also on Sunday, a military transport plane flew into Corpus Christi with what appeared to be supplies for testing. Southside Light News has a team of investigative reporters who routinely monitor local air traffic. Records show that this flight was both unscheduled, non-routine and did not file a flight plan. However, further investigation revealed that the plane originated from possibly North or South Carolina. 

Testing is expected to be conducted throughout the area this week. The next drive-thru test collection conducted by the city/county health officials will be at the Concrete Street Amphitheater located at 700 Concrete Street on Tuesday. Another major testing location is scheduled to be conducted at Waves Resort on North Padre Island on Tuesday, as well.

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