Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra issues an executive order requiring Hays County residents to wear face coverings in public, Thursday, June 18, 2020, outside the Hays County Historic Courthouse. The order was issued amid rising positive COVID-19 cases. Photo credit: Rebecca Harrell

When the COVID-19 pandemic initially made its way to Hays County, the daily case count increased slowly until testing capabilities began to increase and Texas started to reopen in phases. Since then, the county uncovered a second wave of virus cases, forcing its leaders to respond quickly.

On June 10, Hays County reported 27 new cases of COVID-19, totaling 492 lab-confirmed cases in the county. By June 18, total cases tripled to 1,448 with 1,105 active cases prompting the county to establish free testing drives throughout its cities and require the usage of face masks in public spaces.

Free testing drives began June 14 at Bonham Pre-k School, where at least 700 people were tested. Hundreds more were tested June 18 at Simon Middle School in Kyle.

Tests were administered in partnership with the Texas National Guard and Texas Division of Emergency Management. Specimens collected by the mobile testing teams are distributed to 10 labs the state is utilizing to process the tests. While it was originally reported that test results were expected between 10-25 days, TDEM said the state works to meet a 48-96 hour turnaround time.

State Rep. Erin Zwiener believes testing in Hays County is struggling to keep up with the ever-growing case count.

“I suspect that part of the reason we saw the dramatic spike in cases in San Marcos is not because cases increased [a lot] in a week, but because those cases had [already] been circulating and weren’t being tested for,” Zwiener said. “I’m aware the county has made some testing options available, but clearly, they’re not being well utilized by the community.”

Hays County Epidemiologist Eric Schneider said the county has not had a lack of testing or testing locations, citing locations in San Marcos, Kyle, Buda, Dripping Springs and Wimberley.

“Maybe at the beginning of this outbreak we had some issues, but ever since things have begun to ramp up, if somebody needs a test they’re not getting turned away,” Schneider said. “As far as putting together a drive-thru [testing site], we are a small health department with very minimal resources, so we’re trying to do the best we can with what we have.”

As of June 18, over half of the total cases in the county are between the ages of 20-29, at 773 cases out of 1,448. Additionally, San Marcos has the highest number of active cases at 749—the second-highest is Kyle at 224 (as of June 18). Schneider said the county is witnessing the second wave of COVID-19, particularly affecting young San Marcos residents and businesses.

“We anticipated an uptake as businesses, bars, restaurants and local hangouts reopened, but that number is growing faster than we expected,” Schneider said. “We also know many local businesses are impacted because a chunk of their employees are in that [20-29] age range.”

Zwiener calls for the county to invest in a public information campaign in order to combat the surge among young people.

“Clearly with the case rates among our young folks, we need something that’s really targeted at the 20-29-year-old demographics,” Zwiener said. “The state has failed to communicate well with young people. The federal government has failed to communicate well with young people. So Hays County needs to step up and do it.”

Due to San Marcos’ surge in cases, several businesses in the area have temporarily closed or initiated deep cleanings in response to employees testing positive. Since the Hays County Local Health Department does not have the authority to shut down businesses, the county took different measures in an attempt to mitigate the spread of the virus and keep the local economy in motion.

County Judge Ruben Becerra issued an executive order mandating the use of face coverings in public spaces and all businesses throughout the county, effective June 22. Becerra said the pandemic is far from over, adding it is “better to be safe than sorry.”

“I’ve been told if we make masks mandatory we are trampling on our civil liberties. Our freedoms as Americans come with a responsibility too, and caring for each other is all of our responsibilities,” Becerra said. “Wearing a mask while at a place of business is no more trampling on the constitution than mandating folks to wear a seatbelt.”

Zwiener believes mandating facial coverings was only the first step in improving the Hays County COVID-19 response, calling for the usage of CARES Act funds, a federal COVID-19 relief package that provides grants for assistance to state and local governments.

“I want to see permanent, free, easily accessible testing locations for Hays County, and then I want to see a robust public information campaign so that everyone in Hays County understands how to keep themselves and their community safe,” Zwiener said. “The county has almost $5 million and CARES Act funding from the federal government, and this is the perfect use for it.”

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