The coronavirus is probably headed our way, officials say, but that doesn’t mean you should panic.
Instead, the advice from pundits from the CDC all the way down to local health coordinators is fairly pedestrian: wash your hands. Stay home if you’re sick. Don’t cough on people, and try to not to be coughed on.
That advice seems almost too commonplace in light of COVID-19’s impact on the world. New York City declared a state of emergency Saturday. The Italian government is set to cordonne off the northern part of the peninsula and is calling doctors out of retirement to combat the epidemic. Saying that you’ve been on a cruise recently is liable to earn you leery looks at the grocery store.
According to data compiled by Johns Hopkins, there have been over 100,000 cases of the influenza-like coronavirus globally and more than 3,500 deaths caused by it. Eight cases of the coronavirus have been reported by the Texas Department of State Health Services in Houston this week, in addition to 11 evacuees quarantined in San Antonio.
The CDC has reported cases in 19 states as of Friday afternoon, with 11 deaths so far. The World Health Organization says that about 3.4% of reported COVID-19 cases have died, over triple the estimated rate for the seasonal flu.
Officials locally say that efforts are being made to prepare for the virus’ arrival. UT Health hosted a respiratory illness outbreak simulation in Harlingen on Friday and is readying itself to act as a conduit of information in the event of an outbreak.
U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, held a press conference at UTRGV Friday describing billions of dollars in funding passed in a bipartisan effort aimed mostly at fueling research and response initiatives intended to mitigate the effects of the virus.
The congressman said: “$8.2 billion dollars to fight the coronavirus and to prepare ourselves for any future viruses potentially down the road. More than $3 billion will be focused on research and development for vaccines and therapeutics and diagnostics, even though the vaccine might not be available for another year or year and a half, we are working in a concerted fashion to try to get this as soon as possible.”
Despite those large scale efforts, UTRGV School of Medicine Dean Dr. John Krouse said the community’s participation will be vital if the virus crops up locally.
“Handwashing is probably the best preventative effort. Stay home — if you are feeling ill or if you have a fever and you’re coughing and think you may have influenza symptoms, stay home,” he said. “Do not go to work, do not go to school. If you begin to develop worsening symptoms, go to your local healthcare provider or emergency room. I think if we are very good with our preventive efforts, we will reduce the likelihood that there is a significant outbreak here in the Valley.”
Krouse said there’s no way of knowing when the Valley could see a case of the coronavirus.
“I think we should be prepared as if it will come at some point, and should we have someone travel to an endemic area and come back, within the next few days even, we could have an outbreak,” he said. “Or it could be weeks. There’s really no good way of knowing, which is why we should stay vigilant, we should stay prepared and people should continue to practice preventative measures. Hopefully if we do have an outbreak, it will be small and contained.”
According to Krouse, the Valley could have an advantage fighting COVID-19 over more tightly packed urban centers where it’s been reported.
“There’s more public transit in bigger cities where people are close. This type of virus tends not to be spread large distances, so that if someone is coughing or sneezing, if you’re 6 feet away you’re probably OK,” he said. “I think just the population density here will have an impact that will facilitate a lower spread of the disease, should it occur.”
On the whole, Valley organizations seem to be heeding the advice given by health officials: the leaders of schools and large events are monitoring the virus’ progress and developing protocols intended to mitigate its impact. Hand sanitizer is popping up more and more frequently at local businesses, in office reception rooms and in grocery store checkout lanes. Increasingly, people greet each other with an awkward elbow bump that ends in a chuckle and a shrug.
There are, however, signs that concern over the virus is growing in the Valley. Posts on social media claiming that the coronavirus has already been detected locally have been consistently refuted by local health officials and hospital administrators.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there on social media, there’s a lot of misinformation,” Hidalgo County Health and Human Services coordinator Eddie Olivarez said at a news conference last Thursday. “We do not have it here yet. Is it going to be here? Probably. When? I don’t know.”
Some speculation has targeted specific hospitals or schools.
“Rumors of a case of Coronavirus at (COVID-19) at Raymondville ISD and the neighboring districts are false,” a statement issued Friday by Raymondville Superintendent Stetson Roane stated. “No cases of Coronavirus in the Rio Grande Valley have been reported or confirmed according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.”
Despite those reassurances, face masks and disinfectants have become noticeably scarcer in local stores. H-E-B released a statement Saturday commenting on a decision the relailer made last week to limit the amount of cleansing supplies purchased at its stores to four items per transaction.
“We understand our customers want to prepare by stocking up on the essentials. Texans must continue to prepare, but panic does not promote progress,” the statement said. “In order to help ensure all can secure the products they need, when they need them, we’ve implemented limits on certain items because we know limits will help protect the supply chain in Texas. While our customers might find our supply of some products low or temporarily out of stock, please rest assured knowing that we’re maintaining close contact with our suppliers and our Partners are working around-the-clock to keep our shelves stocked.”
H-E-B also announced that it would attend less public events.
“We are also paying close attention to the health needs of our communities and are scaling back our presence at large community gatherings, to promote awareness and prevent the further spread of the virus,” the statement said.
H-E-B’s announcement comes a day after Austin Mayor Steve Adler issued a local emergency that effectively canceled this year’s South by Southwest festival. The 10-day event was scheduled to begin next Friday, bringing in guests from across the globe. Last year the festival’s impact on Austin was estimated at $355.9 million.
Speaking before the cancellation was announced Friday, Rep. Gonzalez said he doesn’t expect the virus to affect high-profile events with large congregations of people locally.
“I think we’re in a pretty safe place here in South Texas,” he said. “I think we need to make sure that people know that this is not a time to be alarmed or panicked. We have zero cases in Texas District 15. We have zero cases in South Texas. We have zero cases in the Rio Grande Valley. So should we be careful? Of course, especially if we’re traveling to areas of concern, like China, Japan, South Korea, Italy or Iran, or in places where somebody else has been infected, but other than that be vigilant.”
Gonzalez said that if the coronavirus does harm businesses locally, federal funding approved last week could help to mitigate that impact.
“Seven billion dollars was allocated to the small business administration for small businesses that have been impacted with the economic impact of the coronavirus in the country,” he said. “So if you’re a small business that feels like you’ve been impacted in this scenario, please contact our office, contact the small business administration, and see if you qualify for that type of funding.”
Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show Board President Mike Risica echoed that sentiment Friday.
“At this point, no, I don’t think it’s going to affect us at all,” he said. “We have talked about it and there’s always concerns about it, but you know, we’re open air, we’re not enclosed, so there’s a lot of positive things.”
Risica said the board discussed the coronavirus and how to address it, ultimately taking cues from the Houston Livestock Show’s policies.
“We’re going to put out hand sanitizer, we’re putting up big signs to make sure you wash your hands well when you come out of the restrooms, a lot of things that just use common sense,” he said. “We’ve done everything we can to make sure that people are going to be safe.”
Risica acknowledged that things could change.
“If the virus does come down here, people might choose not to go, but at this point I don’t think it’s going to affect us, at least as of today, the sixth of March, but we’ll have to see what happens in the next couple of weeks,” he said.
With spring break on the horizon, South Padre Island Chamber of Commerce President Roxanne Ray said Friday that local business owners are cool-headed over the prospect of the virus washing up in South Texas.
“We were talking about it a little bit this week in a smaller group, and to be quite honest with you, nobody seemed to be overly concerned about it,” she said. “No one here seems to be overly concerned, but we all know that all it takes is that one suspect case or that one confirmed case and we’re all going to be scrambling.”
For the most part, Ray said businesses are following the advice of health officials and trusting in good hygiene.
“Some of the businesses I’ve spoken to, like everybody else, are buying up the Lysol spray, buying up the sanitizers, encouraging people to use them, sanitizing their door handles and public places,” she said. “We’re kind of calm, cool and collected, and not going to panic unless there’s a reason for it.”
Hidalgo County has created a webpage — www.hidalgocounty.us/2630/Coronavirus-Updates — to keep residents up to date with any developments with the coronavirus in the area.
Concerned? Here’s what you can do.
Wash your hands
Hand-washing is the most effective way the public can restrict the spread of COVID-19, according to the CDC. Washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds is enough to kill the virus. If soap and water are not available, the CDC recommends using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol.
If you’re sick, stay home
Fever, cough and shortness of breath are symptoms of COVID-19, and it is highly recommended to stay home and seek medical advice if signs are developing. Those concerned should call their healthcare provider from home.
Don’t get too close
The World Health Organization recommends social distancing in response to the virus. COVID-19 is highly contagious, spread between people who are in close contact with one another.
WHO recommends a 1-yard distance between others who are seen coughing or sneezing.
WHO also advises the public to avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth, and practice respiratory hygiene, including covering your mouth with a bent elbow when you cough.