Although they’re not panicking, health officials in Galveston County say they’re making concerted efforts to be ready for COVID-19 should the emerging disease reach locals.
Amid growing national concern about an epidemic, top Galveston County health officials said Thursday they won’t be caught off guard if a case of the novel coronavirus shows up here.
They also urged people in the county to take precautions to stay healthy and to help avoid causing panic.
“There’s not a lot of worry at this moment, but we’re concerned that it’s coming, and we’re working very hard to be prepared for it,” Galveston County local health authority Dr. Philip Keiser said.
It seems “inevitable” that COVID-19 cases will begin to appear in the United States, and the real test for health districts and similar agencies will be quarantining and triaging people suspected of being exposed to the virus, Keiser said.
“The big questions are will our isolation and quarantine techniques be able to minimize it and how severe is it going to be,” Keiser said. “We don’t know the answer to that.”
COVID-19 is caused by a member of the coronavirus family that’s a close cousin to the SARS and MERS viruses that have caused outbreaks in the past.
Local health preparations have included identifying buildings and locations where people can be quarantined if a case is suspected, officials said.
On Thursday morning, the University of Texas Medical Branch had a community town hall to discuss its treatment plans and procedures should local cases emerge, said Dr. Gulshan Sharma, the medical branch’s chief medical officer.
“You always have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Sharma said.
Other forms of preparation that people might see in the community, such as buying and wearing protective masks or canceling large group gatherings, would be premature given the current state of the situation, Sharma said
Beyond the preparations of health officials and public agencies, there have been few apparent local disruptions because of the disease. The epidemic fears come as Galveston prepares for the start of spring break, which typically brings large crowds to the island.
“Our first concern is public safety and to be a conduit for sharing appropriate and accurate information with our partners in the tourism industry,” said Park Board of Trustees Executive Director Kelly de Schaun.
The park board manages the Galveston Island Convention Center and, as of Thursday, the board hadn’t canceled any event or received any calls with concerns about holding large events, de Schaun said.
Public attention on COVID-19 has increased as more diagnoses of the disease have been identified outside of China. Health officials in California on Thursday identified a person with the disease but didn’t know how that person contracted it.
That news came two days after an official from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the agency expected to see “community spread” of the virus, and the disruptions it causes could be severe.
As of Thursday, there have been 14 cases of COVID-19 identified in the United States, not counting the dozens of people who have been repatriated to the country after being infected overseas.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday met with state health officials in Austin to discuss the threat posed to the state and, like the local health officials, said leaders are prepared to deal with whatever situation emerges.
“I’m not saying it’s happening,” Abbott said. “I want you to know that we are preparing for any possibility.”
Abbott spoke with Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday to discuss the federal government’s plans to deal with an epidemic, he said.
At Abbott’s press conference, health officials also said state laboratories had received permission to start testing medical samples for COVID-19 and were in the process of preparing equipment to be able to conduct such tests.
Until Thursday, only the U.S. Centers for Disease Control was allowed to test for and confirm cases of COVID-19.