Where COVID-19 testing is scarce, the Texas military answers the call

News

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — In an undisclosed location near downtown Austin, dozens of soldiers answer hundreds of phone calls from Texans seeking COVID-19 tests.

The Texas Military Department has staffed these call centers with military personnel to schedule appointments for those signing up for a free COVID-19 test, particularly for rural residents.

“When you join the Army, you probably didn’t think that you would be in a call center talking on a phone, but you absolutely knew that you would be dealing with people,” Col. Paul Cerniauskas of the Texas Army National Guard said.

“On the first day this was in operations, I’d emphasize to the soldiers, ‘When you’re on the phone, you’re on the phone with someone’s family, someone’s family member, could be someone’s friend, someone who is concerned for their personal safety and personal future and therefore you should act accordingly,'” he said.

Two members of the Texas Military Department answer phones at a call center on May 1, 2020, to schedule Texans for free COVID-19 tests. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)

The sites are identified 24-48 hours in advance, at which point units are mobilized to the different communities.

“The reality is that we would like it to be longer than that,” Col. Cerniauskas said. “As this process stabilizes, perhaps we can get there, we hope to get there.”

Soldiers staffed more than 30 mobile test collection sites over the weekend. They set up two-dozen locations on Monday and they will staff an additional 22 locations on Tuesday, totaling approximately 75 test sites over a four-day period by the end of Tuesday.

The 1,200 soldiers tasked with operating the mobile testing sites represent approximately one-third of the total troops deployed by Gov. Greg Abbott to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Abbott said on April 21 he expected the units collectively to be able to test up to 3,500 people each day.

“The Governor wanted us to go out to areas primarily that weren’t staffed by their own health department,” Col. Peter Coldwell, M.D., of the Texas Army National Guard, said.

“We are a small cog in a very large wheel,” Col. Coldwell said of the military’s role in the testing process. The mobile testing sites set up by the military in Texas have collected more than 6,500 tests in more than 100 counties. The more people tested, the more health officials can assess the medical needs and outlook for a particular community.

“We don’t care where these Texans are, if they’re in urban communities, or rural communities, we’re out there to provide services, particularly in the rural communities where the service isn’t available,” Col. Coldwell said.

Asked whether the surge in rural COVID-19 cases in Texas prompted the emphasis in rural testing, or whether simply testing in these communities yielded positive tests and therefore accounted for an increase case-count, Col. Coldwell said the answer is “both.”

covid19 testing mason county may 4 2020
Three members of the Texas Military Department operate a mobile COVID019 test collection site in Mason, Texas on May 4, 2020. (Nexstar Photo/Ben Friberg)

“Not to be difficult, but I think the answer to your question is ‘both,'” he told this reporter.

“We go in, we are doing the testing, so consequently, we’re going to find more cases,” he explained. “And what that also allows us to do if we have what we call hotspot areas, we can come back and do more focused testing in that area.”

“The mobile sites have been a godsend,” State Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, said. As the El Paso region saw a cluster of cases begin to grow, the Texas Army National Guard set up a mobile testing site just outside her district boundary in one of the most rural and lowest-income areas of El Paso County. The closest testing site to her constituents is an 80-minute round-trip drive.

“A lot of those families either don’t have transportation or only have one car per family and a lot of essential workers,” González said. “So if one of the essential workers had to go to work, then there was no way to get to that testing site.”

“Luckily, those mobile sites really make it more accessible and that’s exactly what we need if we’re going to be able to fight this coronavirus successfully,” González added.

Col. Coldwell was the first person to be tested at the mobile testing site in Fredericksburg on April 18.

Fredericksburg Community Based Testing Facility
Col. Peter Coldwell, M.D. of the Texas Army National Guard, recieves a nasopharygeal swab as part of a COVID-19 screening at a community based testing facility in Fredericksburg, Texas, April 19, 2020. The Texas Military Department, in tandem with state partners, has established community based testing facilities to provide drive-in COVID-19 screenings to communities not served by a county health department. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Charles E. Spirtos)

“I wanted to have that experience, so I can assure your viewers that it is not a scary procedure,” he said. He described a person wearing full protective equipment taking a nasal swab.

“That can be a little scary perhaps for some folks because all you see is the eyes and that’s okay, they’re there for your safety,” he assured. Those tests are transported to labs elsewhere in the state to be processed.

“We’re now seeing more data, which also showed us that there’s more people with the Coronavirus than we thought, but without those mobile sites, we would really have a gap,” González said.

Serving for four decades in the military, Col. Coldwell is familiar with visible enemies, but is applying his training and experience with this invisible one.

“I’ve had two combat tours, I faced the visible enemy in the past,” he explained. “This is the first time for me dealing with a pandemic on such a large scale, but we we apply the principles that we’ve learned and they’re they’ve been effective thus far.”

col peter and col paul
Col. Peter Coldwell, M.D. (left) and Col. Paul Cerniauskas (right) of the Texas Army National Guard, discuss mobile test teams deployed across Texas on May 1, 2020. (Nexstar Photo/Wes Rapaport)

The Texas Military Department is operating these sites in partnership with the Texas Division of Emergency Management, the Texas Department of State Health Services, the Texas Emergency Medical Task Force, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension.

“We improve as we go, we do the best we can all throughout, we identify where we need to need to do better, and keep on going in support of the mission,” Col. Cerniauskas said.

The military-administered tests are free, but an appointment is necessary. Texans can make an appointment by visiting txcovidtest.org or by calling (512) 883-2400.

Texans can locate the nearest COVID-19 test collection site using the Texas Division of Emergency Management map.

These troops will operate at least 22 test collection sites statewide on Tuesday. Click here for a complete list of sites, or by looking at the list below, organized by day and county.

Mobile Test Collection Locations – May 5, 2020

Bastrop County

Bastrop County Testing Site 1

109 Taylor Street, Smithville

5/5/2020

8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Bastrop County Testing Site 2

361 State Hwy 95, Elgin

5/5/2020

8:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Bexar County

Frank Garrett Multi Service Center

1226 NW 18th St., San Antonio

5/5/2020 to 5/6/2020

8:00 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.

Calhoun County

Bauer Community Center

2300 State Hwy. 35, Port Lavaca

5/5/2020

9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Cameron County

Harlingen Soccer Complex

4515 E. Harrison Ave., Harlingen

5/5/2020

9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Cherokee County

First Baptist Church

372 E. 4th Street, Rusk

5/5/2020

10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.

Concho County

Volunteer Fire Station

116 E. Blanchard St., Eden

5/5/2020

9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Gillespie County

Fredericksburg Elementary School

1608 N. Adams St., Fredericksburg

5/5/2020

9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Hall County

First Baptist Church

121 S. 8th, Memphis

5/5/2020

10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.

Harris County

Ortiz Middle School

6767 Telephone Road, Houston

5/5/2020

10:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.

Worthing High School

9215 Scott St., Houston

5/5/2020

10:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.

Hood County

Hood County Fire Marshal’s Office

401 Deputy Larry Miller Drive, Granbury

5/5/2020

10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.

Hutchinson County

Fairlanes Baptist Church

3000 Fairlanes Blvd, Borger

5/5/2020

10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.

Jefferson County

Beaumont Fire Station

747 College Street, Beaumont

5/5/2020

9:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.

Jim Wells County

Jim Wells County Fairgrounds

3001 S. Johnson St., Alice

5/4/2020 to 5/7/2020

9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Kimble County

Stevenson Center

440 N. US Hwy. 83, Junction

5/5/2020

9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Mitchell County

Mitchell County Hospital

997 W. IH 20, Colorado City

5/5/2020

10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Navarro County

I.O.O.F. Event Center

601 N. 45th Street, Corsicana

5/5/2020

10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.

Nueces County

Richard Borchard Regional Fairgrounds

1213 Terry Shamsie Blvd., Robstown

5/4/2020 to 5/5/2020

9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

San Patricio County

Aransas Pass Civic Center

700 Wheeler Ave., Aransas Pass

5/5/2020 to 5/6/2020

9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Shelby County

Center First United Pentecostal Church

610 Hurst St., Center

5/5/2020

9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Taylor County

100 Kent Street, Merkel

5/5/2020

10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Webb County

Rio Bravo Community Center

1600 Orquidia Lane, Laredo

5/5/2020

9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.

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