COMMENTARY: Public Health Committee examines coronavirus in Texas

As a member of the Texas House of Representatives Public Health Committee, I traveled to Austin this past Tuesday to attend an emergency hearing on the state’s preparedness in addressing the coronavirus (COVID-19). The top experts in Texas came to the Capitol to update the committee on the state agencies and healthcare institutions who are responding to the coronavirus.

As we all know from news reports, the coronavirus has spread throughout the world, the United States, and parts of Texas. However, if the proper precautions are taken, and if one is kept up to date with the latest information, the spread of the coronavirus can be impeded.

When the Public Health Committee met on Tuesday, more than a dozen cases were confirmed in Texas, and more cases are being reported throughout the state on a daily basis. As of Friday, there were 39 confirmed cases in Texas.

The best way to respond to this pandemic is to take it seriously, but not panic.

It has been determined by health care experts that the coronavirus is spread from close person-to-person contact, usually within 6 feet, through respiratory droplets that are produced when someone coughs or sneezes. Another way of contracting the coronavirus is by touching a surface or object that has been compromised with virus droplets, and then subsequently touching one’s face. However, experts made it clear that once the droplets dry, the virus is no longer viable.

Individuals infected with the coronavirus have respiratory illnesses that range from mild to severe. Symptoms can appear anywhere between two and 14 days after exposure and include a fever, coughing, and shortness of breath.

COVID-19 is a novel virus, and has not been detected previously by the human population. This is important because health care professionals are still learning and studying this virus, and, at the same time, they advise that we should take precautionary steps to help prevent its spread.

The best way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is to implement some of the common sense practices our mothers and doctors have been telling us our whole lives: such as frequently washing your hands with warm soap and water. Additionally, it is important to avoid contact with individuals who are sick, cover one’s cough or sneeze, avoid touching your face, clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces, such as cellphones and door knobs, stay home when sick, and seek medical attention.

The implementation of new public health labs equipped to test for the coronavirus is critical. There were 10 labs within the state of Texas as of Tuesday, six of which capable of collecting samples and administering tests to determine if the coronavirus is present. The other four labs, one of which is located in Harlingen, can only collect samples at this time. These samples are then forwarded to one of the six fully functional labs to test for the coronavirus. The results of the tests are then quickly relayed back to the collecting lab and patient. We have been advised the four labs that can only gather samples will be equipped with testing capabilities in the near future and will be able to perform more than 125 tests per day. In a news conference Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster, and said 220 people had been tested in Texas, adding that testing would increase and noted the first official opening of a drive-thru testing site in San Antonio for first-responders and high-risk patients.

Regarding Tuesday’s hearing, my biggest takeaway was learning that while there is no cure or vaccine at this time, if a person is exhibiting symptoms and practices self-isolation and good hygiene, we can help deter the coronavirus from spreading further in our communities. As this situation continues to evolve, my colleagues and I will be receiving updates from our state healthcare officials so that we can better keep you informed.

In order to provide Texans with the latest information on the coronavirus, the Department of State Health Services has created a web page specifically for COVID-19 to provide updates on this rapidly changing health crisis. The web page is dshs.texas.gov/coronavirus/.

Stay vigilant, continue to use common sense and adopt everyday precautionary steps such as washing your hands with warm soap and water, and limiting your exposure to large crowds and gatherings.

State Rep. R.D. “Bobby” Guerra is a Democrat who has represented District 41 since 2012. He currently serves on the House Committees on Public Health and State Affairs. He represents the cities of McAllen, Mission, Edinburg, Palmhurst, Alton and Pharr.