EDINBURG — There were no suspected cases of the coronavirus in Hidalgo County as of Wednesday morning, and the risk of contracting the illness is low, the county’s health director said Wednesday.
Eddie Olivarez, chief administrative officer for Hidalgo County Health and Human Services, made the announcement just a day after a top official from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) all but guaranteed the COVID-19 virus will eventually spread in the United States, saying it’s “not a matter of if, but when.”
As the county’s health director, Olivarez would be one of the first to find out about possible local cases.
“Only the Centers for Disease Control can confirm COVID-19. Your local doctor can’t, a hospital can’t. Only the Center for Disease Control out of Atlanta, Georgia or Fort Collins, Colorado can confirm the Corona-19 virus,” he said. “However, they have to communicate through the local health departments. So if there was any testing being done by a local physician or hospital, they have to be in contact with our department.
“So as of today, we have no cases that we’re testing through the CDC for coronavirus — at all.”
There have also been zero “homegrown” cases of the new illness in Texas or throughout the U.S., Olivarez said Wednesday morning.
At the time of his announcement, there were 57 confirmed cases in the United States, but according to the health director, all of them were travelers who were previously relocated from Wuhan, China or from the cruise ship Diamond Princess.
“I want to make this extremely clear: there are no confirmed cases in Texas. None,” he said. “There are no confirmed cases in Northern Mexico.”
Additionally, all of the 18 cases suspected south of the border turned out to be negative, he said.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-TX, gave similar information during a conference call Wednesday, saying Texas initially received a group of 90 evacuees from Wuhan, China, but they have since been released following a successful, two-week quarantine.
On Wednesday, 145 others remained quarantined at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. That group was aboard the Diamond Princess cruiseship, and six of them were “symptomatic,” Cornyn said.
Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez reiterated Olivarez’ message.
“What I want you all to know is that we are in daily contact with both state and federal agencies regarding this matter,” Cortez said. “We can be calm and go back to business as usual because we think that the threat is not here for us.”
For the past six weeks, Hidalgo County health officials have been in daily contact with federal and state partners, local school districts and hospitals, as well as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and all of its agencies.
“We always have concerns with (people) in between the legal ports of entry coming in,” Cortez said. “I want to tell you, we’re very proud of our Border Patrol. They’re really on top of it. They’re taking all the precautions necessary to keep those types of people from crossing illegally to this area.”
McAllen Miller International Airport is not accepting flights from China, Olivarez added. Only seven hubs across the U.S. are accepting those flights, as previously directed by the Trump Administration.
“United States airlines are no longer flying into China,” Olivarez added. “Some of the Chinese airlines are coming to those (seven) major hubs, but they’re being assessed and reviewed by the CDC.”
Olivarez noted there are seven different strains of the coronavirus.
“I need everyone to hear this carefully and I need the public to understand this. Four of the seven coronaviruses are common colds,” he said. “So, have we had coronavirus in Hidalgo County in the past? Yes — as a common cold, not as MERS, SARS or COVID-19.”
The more dangerous coronavirus illnesses are SARS, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, and MERS, the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, he added.
“Now with COVID-19, it is being looked at because we’re not sure where it’s going to wind up as far as its development as an illness,” he said, adding there is currently no vaccine for it.
Still, a vast majority of the more than 81,000 confirmed cases are in Asia.
“I cannot stress this enough, as of this morning at 6:30, there were 81,200 confirmed cases worldwide. Ninety-eight percent of those are in China, South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong,” Olivarez said. “So again, the threat to us here in the U.S. is very minimal. It’s low risk. However, we need to have public awareness of this illness. We need to have it instilled into our public consciousness that we need to be vigilant.”
The U.S. has issued travel advisories, warning citizens to avoid those areas, and people who have chronic medical conditions should also consider postponing any nonessential travel to Iran, Italy and Japan.
“But how do you control these illnesses,” Olivarez asked rhetorically. “Hygiene. Easiest thing, cover your mouth when you cough and sneeze and wash your hands with soap and water.”
Anyone with questions about the coronavirus can call the county’s hotline at (956) 383-6221 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.