As panic spreads over coronavirus, Texas officials urge calm

A worker in a protective suit stands near the closed seafood market in Wuhan, China. (Reuters/Darley Shen)
A worker in a protective suit stands near the closed seafood market in Wuhan, China. (Reuters/Darley Shen)

A worker in a protective suit stands near the closed seafood market in Wuhan, China. (Reuters/Darley Shen)

The World Health Organization on Jan. 30 declared the deadly coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency—the sixth declaration of its kind in the past decade.

About 170 people have died overseas from the pneumonia-like illness, and last week Texas had its first scare with four suspected cases—all of which turned out to be false alarms.

But as panic and fear of catching the disease spread even faster and wider than the disease itself, Texas health officials are trying to quell hysteria and encouraging people to stay calm, wash their hands and get a flu shot.

So far the mortality rate for the virus is about the same as a bad year of the flu, said Dr. Trish Perl, chief of infectious diseases and geographic medicine at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Health officials also noted that the highest risks were for countries with less sophisticated health care systems.

"Our greatest concern is the potential for the virus to spread to countries with weaker health systems, and which are ill prepared to deal with it,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, at a press conference Jan. 30.

Nonetheless, Texas leaders say they are staying vigilant. On Jan. 30, officials representing state health services, emergency management, public schools, universities and law enforcement met to discuss available resources and distribute information about the coronavirus.

“If you come up sick in Amarillo, you can get treatment just like you would in Dallas or in Houston or in Brownsville,” said Seth Christensen, spokesperson for the Texas Division of Emergency Management. “We have to make sure that all the resources are spread across our state. This virus could impact anyone anywhere.”

In particular, Texas universities, many with international students and Asian study-abroad programs, are evaluating their next steps. The first two suspected cases of the virus in Texas were college students who had recently traveled to China.

Both of the students’ schools, Texas A&M University and Baylor University, join a handful of institutions that have issued temporary bans on all university-sponsored travel to China, save for essential travel. The schools are taking the lead from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issued an advisory Jan. 28 strongly recommending Americans avoid traveling to the country.

No student programs for Baylor were affected by the travel ban, school officials said. The school’s biggest challenge is rerouting already scheduled flights with layovers in China, said Lori Fogleman, a representative for the school, in an email. Representatives from Texas A&M did not respond to requests for comment.

The University of Texas enacted a similar travel ban. Fewer than 10 students from the Austin campus are in China studying abroad. The university is working to get them back to the U.S. and find an alternative study-abroad program or on-campus classes for those who intended to study in China.

Texas’ international airports are also taking action. Since the outbreak, hundreds of flights from Chinese airports were canceled, and U.S. officials routed travel from the region to one of 20 American airports with CDC quarantine facilities, The Washington Post reported Jan. 27.

Passengers flying into select airports in Dallas, Houston and El Paso will be screened for the virus, said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

CDC staff members will have passengers fill out surveys with questions about their travel, symptoms and contact information. They will also take each person’s temperature and take any sick travelers to a hospital for testing, Van Deusen said.

In the last 10 years, the World Health Organization has similarly declared public health emergencies for the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2019, Zika in 2016, polio in 2014, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa from 2013 to 2016 and the swine flu in 2009.

Texas has found itself in the midst of an international health scare in the past. Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed in Dallas as the first person in the United States with the Ebola virus. He died within weeks of the diagnosis, becoming one of two recorded deaths in the nation. Two nurses who treated Duncan were also diagnosed with Ebola. Both survived.

While Ebola was one of the most prominent public health scares in the state in recent years, it’s not akin to the coronavirus, Christensen said.

Ebola was never anticipated to be widespread in the way the coronavirus could be because of its likely airborne nature. But with each public health outbreak, officials say they have learned lessons from how they have handled past situations.

Van Deusen noted that this time, officials have the advantage of public awareness.

“That kind of early identification is critical. One of the advantages we have in this situation is we know it’s there, we know what it looks like and have the tests to identify it,” Van Deusen said.

As of Jan. 30, there had only been five cases of the coronavirus positively identified in the United States and no associated deaths. There are dozens of suspected cases that are pending test results.

Test samples for all suspected cases of the virus were sent to the CDC in Atlanta for testing. The Atlanta headquarters has the only testing materials for the newest strain of the coronavirus. Some states are expected to receive testing materials in coming weeks, Van Deusen said.

“All of us feel like that would be a very, very valuable thing to happen because it would facilitate getting answers much more quickly,” Perl said.

Perl said she understands people’s fear.

“The numbers are escalating in a very dramatic fashion,” Perl said.

As of Jan. 30, at least 170 victims have been confirmed dead and more than 7,700 infected in 22 countries, according to the CDC. Meanwhile, millions of people in at least five cities in China are on an unprecedented lockdown, banned from taking trains, subways or other public transportation to leave.

At least one Texan is stuck in the quarantined city of Wuhan, which was first reported by The Dallas Morning News. Warren Lee of Dallas traveled to the area for work more than a week ago and is now vlogging his unexpected extended stay. In his videos, the city streets are devoid of any other people.

“It’s not the apocalypse out here as much as people have been saying,” said Lee in a video blog, explaining the city still has running water, electricity and internet.

Health officials stress the coronavirus is akin to the flu in symptoms and mortality. This season’s strain of the flu has killed at least 8,200 people and infected at least 15 million in the United States so far, reports the CDC.

Medical professionals urge people to follow cold and flu etiquette: Wash your hands regularly, sneeze into the crook of your arm, stay home if you are sick and get your flu shot.

The shot will not do anything for someone who has the coronavirus, but it is a generally good practice and could make it easier to detect the coronavirus in someone if a flu test comes back negative, Perl said.

“All of these viruses, even these ones you don’t want to hear about, like [the] flu, really have an associated mortality with them. So we really have to take them all seriously,” Perl said.

Disclosure: UT Southwestern Medical Center, The University of Texas at Austin, Baylor University and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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