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County Judge Says COVID-19 Under-Reported

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“Our Numbers are Going to go Through the Roof”

By Will Johnson

Messenger Reporter

HOUSTON COUNTY – Whether you choose to believe it or not, the COVID-19 pandemic is real. By the time this article is read, nearly 5,000 Texans will have perished from the disease. As of July 23 in the United States, 143,446 people have suffered a COVID-19 related death while worldwide the number stands at 624,665.

The vast majority of people who contract the virus survive, however as the numbers shown above indicate, a significant number do not.     

Compared to other counties in Texas, Houston County has been fortunate. The July 23 update from Houston County Emergency Management Coordinator Roger Dickey indicated there was a cumulative total of 60 active cases of COVID-19, two deaths attributed to the virus and 78 recoveries.  

These numbers, unfortunately, are about to show a significant increase, according to Houston County Judge Jim Lovell and on Wednesday afternoon, July 22, he explained why.

“I found out some things that really concern me. There is a clinic here in town that has an antigen test for COVID-19 that takes about 20 minutes to get the results. What they do, if you test positive, is they ask you if you would like to be tested again and send the second test to the lab (in Tyler) for reporting purposes,” the judge said.

He explained he had taken the test (with a negative result) and considered it invasive. Lovell said it was his belief that most people who took the test once, didn’t want to take it again. He cautioned, however, those people who took the test once and received positive results, those positive results tests were not being reported.

“If you drive around, you will see the clinic is being overrun and there are a lot of positive results that do not ever make to the official lab for reporting. I was presuming that if a person tested positive to the antigen test, they sent it to the Tyler lab,” he said.

“Well,” the judge continued, “we began to have county officials with COVID-19. I get addresses (of the people who test positive) but I don’t get their names. I get the addresses because we have to notify our dispatch so they don’t send people out there without PPE (personal protective equipment). That’s the only reason I get the addresses.”

Lovell said the longer this process went on, he began to find out people he personally knew had been infected by the virus, but their addresses were not showing up on the reports he was receiving.

“I asked the owner (of the clinic) about this and he said no, we don’t send the first test off. If they test positive, that’s the end of the line with the antigen test. We (the clinic staff) would always ask if they would like for us to send the other test, which would be the official test. I have been told that the (positive) antigen tests that have been sent have all come back 100 percent positive. If they say it is positive on the antigen, the official test in Tyler comes back positive. They haven’t missed a one. It really bothered me that as many people know about this test that only takes 20 minutes, people are piling in there, but they’re not getting reported,” he said.

Lovell added the county currently had 50 plus cases but he knew people who had been tested, saw positive results and had gone home to quarantine themselves, however, their positive results never showed up in the official numbers.

“I started working on it. I got State Rep. Trent Ashby involved and we had several conversations about this. He made a call to a friend of his who is a former House member and also a doctor. He called the health department and within four hours I got an e-mail saying they would now report this antigen test. Our numbers are going to go through the roof as soon as this hits,” he explained.

The numbers will be retroactive from June 23, when the clinic first acquired the antigen testing equipment. The health department will now accept the antigen test as an official test, Lovell asserted.

“There is an epidemiologist in Tyler named Ria Gupta who is the epidemiologist over Regions IV and V North. I’m looking at a screenshot of a text message she sent the owner of the clinic saying, ‘Yes. We are now counting these as well. Thank you for sending these results.’ Those results have not been counted since June 23. When I saw this wasn’t happening, it troubled me in that we got a false sense of security with only 50 some odd cases in the county, when we may have many, many more,” Lovell said.

The judge went on to say it appeared as if people with a medical background or those who were truly concerned about an accurate count would request the second test to confirm the positive COVID-19 finding. Most others, however, would decline the second test and simply go home and quarantine, with the positive results never being reported.

Asked why the first swab could not be sent to Tyler for testing, the county judge explained when the first test was conducted, the collected specimen was extracted from the swab and tested at the clinic. As a result, if the first swab was sent to the lab in Tyler, the specimen would have been compromised during the initial test and would not give an accurate reading. In other words, because the second swab was not tested at the clinic, the specimen would remain intact and uncompromised allowing for the Tyler lab to provide accurate results.

“If you go to the hospital or clinics in other towns, they don’t have the capabilities this clinic does, so they swab them and sent it to Tyler. Since this clinic has the capability, they have been overrun because they can find out the results in 20 minutes,” he said.

“I called another county that had one of these machines similar to the one here in Houston County and the judge said she hadn’t really sat down and thought about it. She said, ‘Oh my God! There’s no telling what our numbers are,’” Lovell said.  

The judge declined to name the clinic and said he would not like to venture a guess as to the number of new cases which will be reported.

Will Johnson may be contacted via e-mail at wjohnson@messenger-news.com.  

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