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Is Texas Prepared for a Virus Outbreak?

Texas Virus

By Isobella Harkrider

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported ongoing investigations for the coronavirus, an infectious upper respiratory virus responsible for 106 deaths in China at the time of publishing. 

In Texas, two colleges have had students tested for symptoms of the virus that has “more than a thousand confirmed cases in Wuhan, China.”

The symptoms for coronavirus are similar to pneumonia and include coughing, fever and difficulty breathing. Researchers have confirmed it spreads through person-to-person contact, or when an infected person coughs or sneezes onto a surface that someone touches before touching their eyes or rubbing their nose, for example.

Students at both Texas A&M University and Baylor University had negative test results, but the false alarm has caused concern across Texas, with five cases confirmed in the United States so far.

Texas Preparation for Virus Scares and the Flu

This week Gov. Greg Abbott met with state health officials, including the Texas Department of State Health Services. In a statement to the public, he said, “Texas is working tirelessly to ensure every community has the resources and preventative measures needed to respond to the coronavirus,” and stated that “DSHS is also working with local health departments to assess people with respiratory illness and recent travel to the province of Hubei, China for possible 2019 novel coronavirus testing.”

With precaution for outbreaks in mind, Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services told Reform Austin, “It’s something we want people, particularly health care professionals and travelers to and from China, to be aware of. As you know, we don’t have any confirmed cases in Texas, and the virus isn’t spreading within the US, so the risk to the general public remains very low at this time. It’s currently cold and flu season, so everyone should be taking steps to limit the spread of all respiratory viruses.”

When it comes to preparing for emergencies at the local level, as well as recommendations for the public to prepare themselves, Stephanie Alvey, the Preparedness & MRC Coordinator of the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District told Reform Austin, “Public Health Emergency Preparedness Programs are working at the local government level every day to plan and prepare for public health emergencies. We work with our partners in healthcare, EMS, and Emergency Management to develop plans, train, and exercise to ensure we are prepared to respond if an outbreak occurs. Public health works very hard to communicate with the public and we’re always available to answer questions.” 

Many county health services around the state are prepared for outbreak emergencies, and have a clear set of steps to follow in order to keep Texans safe. Marisa Gonzales, the Public Information Officer of Dallas County Health & Human Services, told Reform Austin, “Preparation involves strengthening the existing infrastructure for surveillance of infectious diseases; detecting and investigating outbreaks; identifying etiologic agents and modes of transmission; developing prevention and control strategies; and mobilizing and managing the resources necessary to respond to disease outbreaks and other health emergencies.”

It’s natural to have some anxiety or feel uneasy over when the next case will happen, but there are ways the public can prepare if they’re concerned. Alvey says, “It’s important to stay aware and vigilant but not panic. I would encourage the public to be prepared for emergencies using the tips found at ready.gov and to also stay informed using credible sources such as the CDC or your local or state health department websites.”

Mary K. Parrish, the Health Educator & Public Information Officer at the Brazos County Health District, echoed this sentiment, telling Reform Austin, “To ensure that the public can hold on to their hope during an outbreak, we encourage the public to remain vigilant, but not worried. By following guidelines set by the CDC, a person can take the rational steps to protect themselves from illness.”

For parents and college students concerned about the potential for close contact and infection on campus, many universities are hoping their proactive measures will instill some peace of mind. 

Eric Gerber, the Associate Vice Chancellor and Associate Vice President for University Executive and Internal Communications at The University of Houston told Reform Austin, “…the University of Houston takes such matters very seriously and maintains regularly updated plans and protocols to address possible pandemic issues on campus. We make a concerted effort, using various communication platforms, to make sure our students (and, indeed, faculty and staff) are generally aware of health resources available on campus and we provide specific guidance when something specific, like the coronavirus situation, arises.”

Dr. Sharon W. Stern, M.D., the Medical Director for Baylor University Health Services told Reform Austin, “Communication is key for health awareness for college students. It’s very important for them to know where to seek help, but it is generally not something they are interested in at all…until they’re sick. Over the summer, we make sure our health center has a visible presence during summer orientation to raise awareness and provide information – where we’re located, how to contact us, the kinds of comprehensive services we provide – to incoming students and their families. It’s also helpful that our health center is located inside our student life center, which is a central gathering point for students and allows us to focus not only on intervention when a student is ill but on overall health and wellness, too.”

For Texans suffering from coughing or fever: it’s flu season. And while the flu doesn’t receive as much media attention, for many it can be deadly.

Heather Clark, Dr. P.H., MSPH, the Director of Public Health Practice at the Texas A&M School of Public Health told Reform Austin, “Persons who have the flu may be able to infect others for about one day before symptoms start and for 5-7 days after symptoms appear.” 

To protect against illness, Clark says, “The best prevention is to get the flu vaccine each year. Prevention measures you can use every day include frequent hand washing or use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers, covering a cough or sneeze with your arm or sleeve, avoid touching your mouth, nose, and eyes, and avoid contact with persons who are ill.” 

If you begin to experience symptoms, the current recommendation is to call your doctor’s office before going to avoid infecting others. For more information on the flu, call or visit your local health department’s website or the Department of State Health Services’ flu web page at https://www.dshs.texas.gov/flu/

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