Laredo campus quarantine fight shows municipalities’ tension with Texas officials during pandemic

click to enlarge Texas A&M International University - Facebook / TAMIU
Facebook / TAMIU
Texas A&M International University
San Antonio isn’t the only South Texas city where tensions are running high between municipal and state officials during the pandemic.

A quarantine order by Laredo’s Health Authority last month became a public tussle after state officials overruled a local decision to close down two buildings at Texas A&M International University.

Laredo Health Authority Dr. Victor Treviño signed the quarantine order September 2 to close an academic building and the campus recreational center after a spike in COVID-19 infections at the college. However, the Texas Department of State Health Services, at the direction of Gov. Greg Abbott, revoked the order only hours later.

Rumors of a pending closure of the two buildings circulated among TAMIU students and reporters on the morning of September 2. At noon, Treviño publicly announced the quarantine.

Two hours later, TAMIU President Pablo Arenaz emailed a “campus update” to more than 8,000 enrolled students. “Contrary to media reports, the university has NOT been served with a quarantine notice,” the message read. “The university and all buildings remain open at this time.”

Later the same day, DSHS Deputy Commissioner Jennifer Sims officially revoked the coronavirus control measure without explanation.

“Everyone was freaking out because everyone was confused,” said Luis Daniel Arriaga, a senior who works on campus and believes most of the infections originated at the rec center. “We didn’t’t know who to believe, the Laredo Health Authority or TAMIU. TAMIU was losing a lot of student trust.”

Initially, the Laredo Health Authority demanded university administrators place the entire campus under full quarantine after learning of a significant uptick in infections. When the university pushed back on a full shutdown, Treviño wrote the order limiting the closure to the buildings he suspected played key roles in the outbreak.

As of press time, TAMIU had tested more than 1,700 individuals for COVID-19 this year, finding a cumulative total of 32 infections as of September 25. Of those, 11 were confirmed the day the quarantine order was signed.

Up the chain

“We had a meeting with A&M and realized they went up the chain and got the order reversed,” Treviño said after the dust settled. “I am not measured by how many times I’m overturned. I’m measured by the lives I save. If they choose to overturn that, it’s their power to do it.”

Moments after the state killed Treviño’s quarantine, TAMIU president Arenaz sent a second email to students and included reporters in the blast. Citing previous orders issued by Abbott and “other state law,” he said the Laredo Health Authority doesn’t have the power to issue a quarantine.

“We have explained this to the [Laredo Health Authority] on multiple occasions,” the statement read, “but they refused to recognize the limits on their authority and issued orders that are simply unlawful.”

The tension between state and local officials was apparent to TAMIU faculty members.

“It was a pissing contest,” Jerry Thompson, a history professor at the university, said of the fight between Arenaz and Treviño. “The president clearly won.”

English Professor Jonathan Murphy estimates 85% of all TAMIU students are taking lessons remotely. Although he believes the university is doing a good job containing the virus, he said he wouldn’t be comfortable going to the campus gym.

“I think people have to have their own risk tolerance,” he added.

Alarming trend

Since March, medical professionals in Laredo have struggled to control coronavirus hospitalizations and deaths. The same month, Laredo’s city council voted to impose nightly curfews and require people to wear masks in public. However, Abbott ordered the reopening of businesses in May and denied local authorities the power to enforce face-covering ordinances.

On September 17, citing a statewide decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations, Abbott allowed restaurants, gyms and nursing homes to further reopen in 19 of the state’s 22 hospital districts. However, the governor said the Laredo district would remain under restrictions because its hospitalization rate is among the highest in Texas.

“If the prevalence is still high, as the governor says, what are we doing opening schools?” Treviño asked. “I continue to say what’s medically indicated. But as long as there are no teeth to my recommendations, people are going to do what they want.”

To date, more than 329 people have died of COVID-19 in Laredo. The number of positive virus infections at TAMIU has increased by more than 190% in the past month.

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