Since its outbreak in China late last year, the novel coronavirus (and the disease it causes, known as COVID-19) has killed more than 175,000 people worldwide (as of April 22). The virus’s rapid spread across the globe has health officials scrambling to contend with the pandemic. What do Texans need to know about the outbreak? Here are some answers to help keep you informed.
How many cases are there in Texas?
The official count from the Texas Department of State Health Services stands at 21,944—as of 11:30 a.m. April 23—with 561 deaths and confirmed COVID-19 cases in 202 of the state’s 254 counties.
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How many more cases will we see in Texas?
Hard to say, but Governor Greg Abbott has said that we can expect an increase in cases as testing ramps up, the Texas Tribune reports. According to the state, as of April 23, 225,078 people have been tested.
Most experts agree there are likely many more infected people in the United States than the CDC’s official count of confirmed and presumptive cases. That’s partly because for many of those infected, the symptoms of COVID-19—fever, coughing, and shortness of breath—aren’t necessarily distinguishable from the seasonal flu. And in most cases the symptoms are mild, while some carriers of the disease exhibit no symptoms at all. As a result, some sick people—particularly those who are unaware that they’ve had recent contact with a person infected by the new coronavirus, or who haven’t traveled recently to a known hot spot for the disease—might not suspect they should be tested.
Another factor further hampering the ability of officials to know the full extent of the disease’s reach: a shortage of test kits. Though the federal government is working to remedy the problem, medical professionals and citizens have complained about how hard it is to get tested. Texas has labs that can test for the virus, and drive-through facilities in cities including San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas will test people who meet certain qualifications.
Should you panic?
No, but it’s wise to take precautions. Local, state, and federal health officials are offering the same sensible advice your family doctor might give you to ward off any virus. Wash your hands often, with soap and water, for at least twenty seconds—especially before eating, after going to the bathroom, and after blowing your nose or coughing. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. And frequently disinfect household objects and surfaces.
Local, state and federal officials have also recommended other ways to keep the virus at bay, including social distancing.
Should you relax then?
Again, it’s wise to take precautions. While most infected people won’t get any sicker than they might from a bout of the flu, COVID-19 appears to be a deadlier disease. On March 3, the World Health Organization estimated COVID-19’s death rate at 3.4 percent. But some experts cautioned that the actual rate could be much lower because of the likelihood that a significant number of mild or symptom-free infections worldwide remain undetected.
Indeed, as testing for the virus has ramped up across the United States and worldwide, we’ve seen widely varying death rates for those infected by the virus from country to country and even city to city. That’s because while it’s relatively easy to track the number of deaths, short of testing an entire population for the COVID-19 virus, it’s not possible to precisely calculate the rate. Texas’s latest official figures, as of April 22, would suggest a 2.6 percent death rate among those infected, but we also know that Texas ranks among the worst states in the nation in per-capita testing.
Keep in mind as well that the death rate is calculated only from among those known to have contracted the virus. To consider the chance that a given person in any exposed population will die from that infection, you want the mortality rate. Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has said the mortality rate for COVID-19 appears to be about 1 percent. For comparison’s sake, the seasonal flu’s fatality rate is roughly 0.1 percent and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which killed about 50 million people worldwide, had a 2 to 3 percent rate.
What’s happening around the state to help stem the virus’s spread?
On March 19, Abbott announced an executive order to address the outbreak across the state. According to the order, people shouldn’t:
- Visit nursing homes or retirement facilities, “unless to provide critical assistance”
- Eat and drink at bars and restaurants (takeout and delivery services are still permitted)
- Participate in social gatherings of more than ten people
- Visit gyms
On March 31, Abbott issued a new order which extended the state’s social distancing policy to April 30. On April 17, he announced that school would stay closed for the rest of the school year. However, the governor is expected as soon as Friday to announce the reopening of some businesses, including restaurants, hair salons, and retail stores. He’s already reopened state parks.
That move by the governor could supersede stay-at-home orders issued by county and city leaders. Dallas County has extended its requirements until May 15. San Antonio and Bexar County; Harris County; Waco; the City of Austin and Travis and Williamson counties; Fort Worth and Tarrant County; and El Paso city and county officials remain under similar stay-at-home rules.
Some Texas jurisdictions are advising residents to wear fabric face masks when out in public. Laredo, which was the first, mandates masks for anyone entering a building that is not his or her own home. After new recommendations were announced April 3 by the Centers for Disease Control, Austin health officials have required residents to wear face coverings when outside their homes and issued guidelines for how these should be constructed and fitted.
The state also is requiring anyone who has flown to Texas from New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut to self-quarantine for fourteen days. Abbott expanded that to include people driving or flying into Texas from any location in Louisiana, as well as those flying from Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, and Miami, or from California or Washington state.
How are Texas medical programs contributing to fighting the virus?
A team at the University of Texas at Austin made headlines last month by being the first to create a 3D atomic scale map of the virus. Their work will help researchers all over the world to identify weaknesses in the novel coronavirus that could lead to the development of vaccines or antiviral drugs. And Dr. Peter Hotez, codirector of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, testified before Congress on March 12 that his team had been close to developing a vaccine for the similar SARS coronavirus four years ago but they were never able to test it on humans. Funding dried up once it seemed the threat from SARS had passed.
Still, even if these developments by Texas scientists aid the effort to develop a vaccine, it’ll likely be at least a year and a half before one can be developed.
So keep washing those hands, and quit touching your face.
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