Number of Cases rises to 57; Officials close Schools, cancel Public Events
UPDATED – March 18, 2020 – Health Officials confirmed the 57th case of coronavirus in the Harris County region.. Officials said that they recorded 10 cases in Houston, 23 cases in Harris County, 12 cases in Fort Bend County, 3 cases in Brazoria County, 4 in Galveston County, 7 in Montgomery County, and 3 in Matagorda County, where a 90 year old man died. There were 12 new cases reported in one day. (NOTE: This number will change as days go by.)
HOUSTON – With 57 coronavirus (COVID-19) cases reported in the Houston and Harris County areas, the city and the county are on high alert. Most of the cases can be traced to either a vacation cruise on the Nile River in Egypt, or attendance at the Houston Rodeo cook-off. However, several cases have not been identified with these causes, and are being investigated.
Actions have been taken to prevent the virus spread, such as closures of the Rodeo, schools and colleges, athletic events, and entertainment. This week the closure of all restaurants and bars was added and groups were limited to less than 50 persons. The scope of closures is unprecedented in modern times.
In East Harris County, school districts were closed, and hot meals were being distributed at various schools. Colleges and many public facilities, parks and libraries, were also closed.
A call center has been opened to answer questions from the public. Houstonians can call the center at 832-393-4220 to speak to Health department staff and obtain information about the disease or get their questions answered.
The call center will open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. It will return voice messages left after hours the following day on a first call, first served basis.
Federal action is expected later this week, with test centers and financial relief for those unable to work. The government has been criticized for a slow, late response to what the World Health Organization now calls a Pandemic.
Last Thursday, Mayor Turner updated the public on the city of Houston’s response to containing and mitigating the spread of COVID-19 at a press conference.
Harris County Health Officials recommend the following steps for people at higher risk. These steps are recommended until March 31, 2020 or until otherwise noted.
GUIDANCE FOR PEOPLE AT HIGHER RISK FOR SEVERE COVID-19 ILLNESS
People at higher risk of severe illness should stay home and away from large groups of people as much as possible, including public places with lots of people and large gatherings where there will be close contact with others. Gatherings of seniors or other people at higher risk of severe illness should be canceled or postponed. Those at higher risk include:
• People 60 and older.
• People with underlying health conditions (e.g. heart disease, lung disease, diabetes)
• People who have weakened immune systems.
• Pregnant women.
Caregivers of children with underlying health conditions should consult with healthcare providers about whether their children should stay home. Anyone who has questions about whether their condition puts them at increased risk for severe COVID-19 illness should consult with their healthcare provider. Those without a healthcare provider should contact Harris Health’s Ask A Nurse line at: 713-634- 1110.
GUIDANCE FOR WORKPLACES AND BUSINESSES
Employers should take steps to make it more feasible for their employees to work in ways that minimize close contact with large numbers of people.
• Maximize telecommuting options for as many employees as possible.
• Urge employees to stay home when they are sick and maximize flexibility in sick leave benefits.
• Consider staggering start and end times to reduce large numbers of people coming together at the same time.
• Clean and disinfect frequently touched areas (doorknobs, tabletops, countertops, phones, keyboards, etc.).
• Prioritize protective actions for employees who are at higher risk of severe illness.
EVENT AND COMMUNITY GATHERING CONSIDERATIONS
We strongly urge the organizers of any events over 250 people to cancel or postpone such events. Additionally, we strongly encourage organizers of events of any size in which people will be in close contact to cancel or postpone such events, if possible.
If you cannot avoid bringing a group of people together, we recommend the following guidelines:
• Anyone who is sick should not attend.
• Those who are at higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness should not attend.
• Increase the frequency of sanitizing common touchpoints.
• Try to find ways to give people more physical space so that they are not in close contact as much as possible.
• Ensure an adequate supply of hand soap, disinfectants, tissues, and paper towels.
• Encourage attendees to follow increased hygiene, such as:
• Washing their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
• If soap and water are not available, attendees should use alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
• Avoid close contact with other people
• Avoid touching their eyes, nose, and mouth
• Covering their cough or sneeze with a tissue – if available – or into their elbow
GUIDANCE FOR SENIOR LIVING AND ASSISTED LIVING
Senior living facilities, assisted living facilities, and other facilities with populations at higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness should limit interactions with the general public as much as possible. These facilities should:
• Implement social distancing measures:
• Reduce large gatherings (e.g., group social events)
• Alter schedules to reduce mixing
• Limit programs with external staff
• Consider having residents stay in facility and limit exposure to the general community
• Visits should be limited and restricted to residents’ rooms
• Implement temperature and respiratory symptom screening of attendees, staff, and visitors.
• Implement short-term closures as needed (e.g., if cases are identified among staff, residents or clients who live elsewhere) for cleaning and contact tracing.
• Clean frequently touched surfaces daily.
GUIDANCE FOR SCHOOLS
Harris County Public Health (HCPH) is currently not recommending closing schools. If a case of COVID19 is diagnosed at a school, HCPH will work with the relevant school and district to determine actions to take, including potential closure of the school.
At this moment, Harris County Public Health is not recommending school closures at this time because children have not been shown to be at high risk for serious cases of COVID-19. When some schools briefly closed during the H1N1 influenza pandemic, children still gathered in group settings and thus still had exposure to one another. Additionally, closing schools would put a strain on our workforce, including healthcare and emergency workers who are essential to the COVID-19 response. As much as possible, children should be allowed to carry on with their education and normal activities. HCPH respects individual school districts’ decisions about closures or postponement of activities.
It is important for schools to limit potential spread of COVID-19 because infected students may still come into contact with those who are at higher risk for severe COVID19 illness outside the school setting. We are asking schools to take precautions to avoid the spread of COVID-19. Schools should:
• Implement social distancing measures:
• Reduce the frequency of large gatherings (e.g., assemblies), and limit the number of attendees per gathering.
• Alter schedules to reduce mixing (e.g., stagger recess, entry/dismissal times)
• Limit inter-school interactions
• Consider distance learning and/or e-learning in some settings
• Consider regular health checks (e.g., temperature and respiratory symptom screening) of students, staff, and visitors (if feasible).
• Short-term dismissals for school and extracurricular activities as needed (e.g., if cases are identified among staff/students) for cleaning and contact tracing.
• Students at increased risk of severe illness should consider implementing individual plans for distance learning and/or e-learning.
• Prioritize protective actions for students, staff, and visitors who are at higher risk of severe illness.
Some children have underlying health conditions, such as weakened immune systems, that put them at higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness. Caregivers of children with underlying health conditions should consult with healthcare providers about whether their children should stay home. Those without a healthcare provider should contact Harris Health’s Ask A Nurse line at: 713-634- 1110.
FOR PEOPLE WHO ARE SICK
• Stay home when you are sick.
• Do not go out in public when you are sick.
• If you are ill in any way, call your doctor’s office first before going in.
• Do not go to the emergency room unless you are experiencing a medical emergency. Emergency rooms need to be able to serve those with the most critical needs.
• If you have symptoms like cough, fever, or other respiratory problems, stay home and self-isolate until you have contacted a healthcare professional.
FOR THE GENERAL PUBLIC
• Wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use hand sanitizer when you cannot wash your hands.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue and throw the tissue away. If you don’t have a tissue, use the elbow of your sleeve. Don’t use your hands to cover coughs and sneezes.
• Even if you are not ill, avoid visiting hospitals, longterm care facilities or nursing homes to the extent possible. If you do need to visit one of these facilities, limit your time there and keep six feet away from patients.
• Avoid close contact with people who are sick, especially if you are at higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness.
• Get plenty of rest, drink plenty of fluids, eat healthy foods, and manage your stress to keep your immunity strong.
• Clean household surfaces with standard cleaners.
• Stay informed. Information is changing frequently. Visit ReadyHarris.org frequently for updates.
MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES
The outbreak of COVID19 may be stressful for people throughout the community. Fear and anxiety about a disease can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children. Accordingly, we suggest the following recommendations:
• People with preexisting mental health conditions should continue with their treatment plans, stay connected with their healthcare provider, and monitor for any new symptoms.
• Call your healthcare provider if stress reactions interfere with your daily activities
• Call the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985- 5990 if you are experiencing emotional distress related to COVID-19.