In a month’s time, total COVID-19 cases in Kerr County have risen by more than 50%. Eight people are now hospitalized, and the testing positivity rate has crept above 10%.
The area had successfully flattened the curve in August and September after Gov. Greg Abbott issued a series of orders — including a mask mandate — but political ideology and medical misinformation have complicated the local response.
‘They Love Their Freedom’
Peterson Regional Medical Center in Kerrville has more than 120 beds and about 1,000 employees.
Through the sliding doors, past a temperature scan and down a staircase, staff members are called one by one into a small exam room to get vaccinated against the flu. All staff members will receive a flu vaccination, including infection preventionist Pam Burton.
“I like masks. I like hand hygiene. I like social distancing,” she said with a chuckle. “And I like flu vaccinations.”
She’s seen and heard a lot of harmful information about COVID-19.
“There is a lot of misinformation floating around all over,” she said. “The internet is a big source of it.”
Experts have referred to an “infodemic” — an even more rapidly spreading outbreak than COVID-19. The pandemic of misinformation spans the gamut from questions about the efficacy and safety of masks to claims about the availability of natural remedies and treatments for the coronavirus.
A very small segment of the Kerr County population actively shares this bad information. A larger portion oppose a mask mandate for a different reason.
“People here are entrepreneurial. They’re independent,” said Cory Edmonson, President and CEO of Peterson Health. “And they love their freedom and don’t like necessarily being told what to do. And I respect that, and I’m of the same vein in that arena.”
Peterson Health hasn’t been hit hard by COVID-19, even when the summer surge overwhelmed hospitals in other cities.
“We even got to the point where we took a few patients from the border communities to treat to help them out from their surge,” Edmonson said.
To be sure, cases did rise in Kerr County over the summer. Throughout the course of the pandemic, more than 650 people have been infected and about a dozen have died. Those numbers could be lower with widespread mask use.
‘They Want To Control’
As cases began to surge around Texas in late June, local officials had little power to close establishments and to mandate masks because Gov. Abbott overruled them. But in mid-June, just southeast of Kerrville, Bexar County judge Nelson Wolff found a loophole in the governor’s order. It allowed local officials to mandate masks at businesses.
On June 29, the Kerr County Commissioners Court met to discuss a potential, similar mask mandate. With more than 1,800 views, the archived video is by far the most watched on the county’s YouTube channel.
Public comment stretched on for more than an hour as ideology and misinformation clashed with public health and science.
Some residents claimed masks can deplete oxygen and are ineffective against COVID-19. The vast majority of reputable medical experts — many of whom wear masks for their work every day — disagree with this assessment.
Masks are safe, and while there was some early back and forth about the efficacy of masks against COVID-19, the current consensus is that they are vital. Mask use significantly reduces the spread of the coronavirus, and masks cause no harm to the vast majority of the population. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said mask use is the most important tool in the fight against COVID-19, by far.
But during the meeting, even County Commissioner Harley Belew claimed that masks are harmful.
Part of the argument against masks is based on misinformation — harmful, bad pseudoscience spread by a handful of residents and local officials. Most opponents of a mask mandate focused on a different issue.
“Think back: Kerrville and Kerr County and the Hill Country in general was founded on conservative principles — that being that a person looked after themselves and their family and their neighbors,” one resident said. “And encompassing within that, it, to me, comes down to just American common sense.”
For this group, personal liberty is first and foremost.
“We must ensure that we maintain our fundamental right to make these decisions for ourselves with limited government intervention,” another resident said.
At the end of the meeting, Kerr County Judge Rob Kelly proposed a compromise, of sorts.
“And that is that we make a motion that we encourage everyone — businesses and individuals — to wear masks in public, for themselves and for others, if they believe that. And if they don’t believe that, they don’t,” he said. “You know, do what you believe. Everybody exercises their own rights.”
The proposal received unanimous support. It also changed nothing.
Tom Moser is the county commissioner for Kerr County’s Precinct 2. He moved to Kerrville in 1994 and really, truly loves the area.
“So, now 26 years later, I still think it’s the best place in the world to live,” he said.
And he knows the community well. He summed up the general thinking on the pandemic in a couple sentences.
“Every aspect of life has got risk to it unless you just don’t do anything,” he said. “Anytime you are trying to have the freedoms associated with liberty, there’s always risk.”
But what about ways to moderate the risk — methods, like mask use, that allow more people to do more things with less risk?
This is where Moser and many others believe individual choice and personal liberty come into the mix. He pointed to the governors of California and New York.
“They think they know best what’s good for the public, and I don’t agree with that at all,” he said. “I think that this coronavirus thing is enabling people to have more control because that’s their philosophy — they want to control. OK? They want to control.”
William Rector is a lifelong resident of Kerrville and has practiced medicine there for about three decades. He said he understands the personal liberty argument, but doesn’t buy it.
“Well, there are many instances where our personal liberties have been impugned because of greater good,” he said. “Wearing a seat belt is one, driving the speed limit is one, placing a child in a child carrier in a vehicle — those are all things that are against our personal liberties, but we do them because we realize that they save lives.”
He spoke at that Kerr County Commissioners meeting in late June, when the Commissioners Court decided not to implement a mask mandate. He argued that a mandate would help businesses reopen and stay open — that widespread mask use was essential to a successful and safe reopening.
“It was disappointing,” he said. “But I think that — looking in retrospect — it was not the decision that we needed for this community because after that meeting, the number of cases of COVID in Kerrville began to rise, and rise rather rapidly.”
Cases were rising exponentially across Texas. Locally, the total caseload had increased from 20 at the start of the month to just more than 100 the day after the meeting. And then, on July 2, just three days after the commissioners chose to not implement a mask mandate, Gov. Greg Abbott released a YouTube video. He presented graphs with alarming trend lines.
“COVID-19 is not going away,” he said. “In fact, it’s getting worse.”
He implemented a statewide mask order.
“Our numbers began to drop down significantly,” William Rector said.
It took a while. The trend line didn’t truly flatten out till August. After a few weeks of minimal case growth, Judge Kelly wanted to make a change in mid-September.
“Our county judge decided that, ‘Hey, things are so cool, we can take away the masks,’” Rector said. “And when that happened, our numbers started going back up again.”
Judge Kelly did not respond to TPR’s interview request. Tom Moser was the only county commissioner who accepted an interview, and the City of Kerrville did not respond.
In the first week of October, the county took a closer look at the data and backpedaled on the mask issue, requesting the state put the county back on the mask mandate list.
The current trend line isn’t as steep as it was in the worst weeks of July, but the total caseload continues to grow. And the summer surge was preceded by the statewide reopening of bars. In mid-October, Kerr County opted into the governor’s new reopening plan for bars.
Once again, people are congregating, glasses are clinking and the specter of another surge is lurking.