Since its outbreak in China late last year, the novel coronavirus (and the disease it causes, known as COVID-19) has killed about 21,000 people worldwide (as of Thursday). 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 questions 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 1,731—as of noon Friday—with 23 deaths and confirmed COVID-19 cases in 105 of the state’s 254 counties.
How many more cases will we see in Texas?
Hard to say. Researchers are still scrambling to learn more about the virus, but Governor Greg Abbott has said that we can expect an “exponential increase” in cases as testing ramps up, the Texas Tribune reports. According to the state, as of Friday, about 24,000 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.
The White House provided further recommendations Monday, saying that older Americans and people with serious health conditions should “stay home and away from other people.”
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 has slowly ramped up in the United States, what looked like a nearly 6 percent death rate on March 6 had dropped to 1.68 percent as of March 17. And those numbers vary widely by country depending on how the government and public have responded to the threat.
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. And COVID-19’s mortality rate is lower than other recent coronavirus outbreaks, SARS and MERS.
What’s happening around the state to help stem the virus’s spread?
On Thursday, 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
The order, which also says that schools will be temporarily closed, will last through April 3, for now.
Taking it a step further, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins on Sunday issued a stay-in-place order for area residents. The order—which will run through April 3— bans social gatherings “outside a single household or living unit.” 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 have since announced similar stay-at-home rules, and most went into effect at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday.
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. “We could have had this ready to go and been testing the vaccine’s efficacy at the start of this new outbreak in China,” Hotez told NBC News.
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.
More coronavirus stories:
Texas Anti-Vaxxers Fear Mandatory COVID-19 Vaccines More Than the Virus Itself