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Troubling Hospitalization Numbers Spur Testing Expansion in Waco-McLennan County

Graphic by Sam Cedar / KWBU

McLennan Community College is home to one of the free COVID-19 mobile testing sites recently set up here in Waco. Cars move from tent to tent in a large converted parking lot, where patients are registered, tested, and given free masks and hand sanitizer.






This is the first time since the pandemic began that free testing has been widely available in Waco, home to 140,000 Texans. These testing sites were launched in late September, after the state government and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services designated Waco as a candidate for surge testing due to the high percentage of hospitalizations in Waco-McLennan County related to COVID-19.


40,000 tests were sent to the community, and they have been administered across the city  

at mobile testing sites in parking lots, football stadiums, and community centers. 


Stephanie Alvey is the Public Health Emergency Preparedness Coordinator for the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District. She says the district is confident that increased testing in Waco will motivate community members to take safety precautions more seriously.   


"Yeah, so testing is so important, because it’s one of the biggest drivers for impacting behavior, right? So, if you have a cough, or sniffle, or sore throat, and you’re used to having that, you’re going to go about and do your normal daily business, but if you have access to the tests, and you’re curious and think, ‘What if this could be?’ because I know we’ve all thought that, at this point you have easy access to the tests now."


Waco has joined a number of small communities across Texas in reporting a surge in COVID-related hospitalizations in the last few weeks. 52 people are currently hospitalized due to the disease, and 49 of the 54 available ICU beds in the county are in use. 


Alvey says that this spike has only added more weight to an already strained healthcare system, which frequently ran at capacity prior to the pandemic. 


"A lot of people don’t realize that hospitals already run at a pretty high capacity. So, adding on one more thing that’s going to increase that could spell trouble."


Waco benefits from the presence of two large healthcare systems, including Ascension Providence and Baylor Scott and White, which can funnel resources like beds, ventilators, and PPE to individual hospitals as needed. However, the pandemic has left the hospitals short staffed, as many nurses and doctors have been forced to quarantine themselves. 


"They are still seeing anywhere between 40 and 50 COVID patients at a time, between our two facilities. I wouldn’t say that they’ve been overwhelmed,  but they have had concerns with staffing especially."


Among the most notable figures who brought these tests to Waco is Dr. Deborah Birx of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. 


Dr. Brix helped Waco to secure the tests from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services after visiting Baylor University in September. 


"The key success in Baylor and the universities that we’ve seen is that they spent the summer planning. They brought in the faculty and the staff to really plan through these issues so they’d be ready in August."


Dr. Birx noted how Baylor slowed the virus’ spread on campus, and she highlighted the sizable difference in positivity rates between the university and the broader community.  


"Right now, the community has a higher test positivity than the college and university. We want to ensure that we can both test in the community and really ensure that we’re reaching those most in need in the community."


In the weeks ahead, the city’s top priority is ensuring that members of the community take advantage of the free testing available, particularly among those in demographic groups that have been disproportionately affected.