Harris County officials: 2 confirmed COVID-19 cases stemmed from international travel; no evidence of community spread

County Judge Lina Hidalgo (center), Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Public Health Executive Director Umair A. Shah spoke at a March 5 press conference about Harris County's first confirmed COVID-19 cases. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
County Judge Lina Hidalgo (center), Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Public Health Executive Director Umair A. Shah spoke at a March 5 press conference about Harris County's first confirmed COVID-19 cases. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)

County Judge Lina Hidalgo (center), Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Public Health Executive Director Umair A. Shah spoke at a March 5 press conference about Harris County's first confirmed COVID-19 cases. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)

Two Harris County residents with confirmed cases of COVID-19, or the new coronavirus, contracted the illness while traveling abroad and are in stable condition at a local hospital, county officials said March 5.

The 60- to 70-year-old patients, a man and woman from unincorporated northwest Harris County, were part of a group trip to Egypt that returned to the U.S. in late February, officials said. Another member of the trip is the subject of a possible COVID-19 case reported in Fort Bend County on March 4.

"Along with the Fort Bend case that was confirmed yesterday, these folks were all part of a trip to Egypt. They are part of a larger group that we’re aware of that are now under self-quarantine and have been under self-quarantine, and are being tested," Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a March 5 press conference.

The county is still in a containment phase in its response to the virus, officials said, and county health workers are both treating the confirmed patients and mapping their networks and local activity since their return to the U.S.

“There is no indication that they may have contracted this even on U.S. soil, so that’s good news for us because we have a closed loop of people right now that we identified," Hidalgo said.


Dr. Umair A. Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health, said at the press conference the virus has not been identified outside of the travel group.

“We have no evidence of community-wide spread at this time," he said.

Officials said Harris County residents should avoid panic and continue to observe recommended hygiene practices.

“We all have to do our part, and our part right now continues to be to wash our hands, to not sneeze or cough into our hands, to stay home from work or school if we feel sick, and to continue to pay attention to the news," Hidalgo said.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at the press conference the city now has the ability to test COVID-19 samples within 24 hours without sending them to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and city hospitals are working toward testing capabilities as well. While the virus has not spread beyond the travel group, Turner said local businesses, schools and nursing homes should develop their own COVID-19 preparedness plans.

“We said from the very beginning, ‘We’ll plan for the worst, hope for the best,'" Turner said. "And so the planning has been taking place with the county, ... with our medical institutions over the past several months."

Turner also said residents should maintain their daily activities in the area, while recommending they minimize international travel plans.

“We are carefully monitoring all of the situation," he said. "We don't want to become paralyzed by fear, so I’m still encouraging people to go about their business, but to exercise common sense and good judgement.”

Officials confirmed that the female patient from Harris County is an employee of Rice University. In a March 5 statement, the university said she was in contact with its Houston campus Feb. 24 and 25, and that several students, staff and faculty members remain in self-quarantine with no reported symptoms.

"The affected employee's presence on campus was limited to one building, which has been extensively and continuously sanitized along with the rest of the campus. Based on our investigation, the staff member had no direct contact with our undergraduate population and has not been in any residential colleges or classrooms since returning to Houston Feb. 20," the university said in the statement. "At this time, we are not planning to suspend campus operations or classes. Going forward, we will continue to follow the guidance of the CDC and Harris County Public Health."
By Ben Thompson
Ben joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2019 as a reporter for The Woodlands area and began working as Austin's City Hall reporter in April 2021.