The number of COVID-19 cases in the Houston area continued to grow this week.
So have the region’s concerns about the upper-respiratory disease caused by the new strain of coronavirus, with more and more people and organizations taking precautionary measures in an attempt to prevent its spread.
On Wednesday, a week after Greater Houston’s first COVID-19 case was reported in Fort Bend County, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said evidence of community spread of the disease has prompted the postponement or cancellation of several citywide events, including the popular Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. The annual rodeo, one of the largest in the world, started March 3 and was scheduled to run through March 22.
“You know just how much we love the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo,” Turner said Wednesday. “This decision has not come easily, but the health and safety of the people in our region is paramount.”
Turner, who said he would be signing a state-of-emergency declaration for the city, also said the city’s remaining Capital Improvement Project meetings scheduled for later this month will be postponed. Among the meetings impacted are those for Houston City Council districts C and H.
By Thursday morning, the count of coronavirus cases in the Houston area had climbed to 16. The City of Houston announced Wednesday night that a third person inside the city limits tested positive for the disease, a female between the age of 15 and 25. Montgomery County announced its second positive test result, a woman in her 40s, on Thursday morning.
On Tuesday night, Harris County reported the region’s 14th person to test positive for the disease – which has infected more than 124,000 people in 118 different countries and led to more than 4,600 deaths, according to the World Health Organization, which on Wednesday declared the outbreak a pandemic. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county is declaring a state of emergency as well.
Harris County Public Health said a woman who lives in the southwest part of the county and is between 20 and 30 years old had been living in Italy – one of the world’s hardest-hit countries – and contacted her healthcare provider upon returning to the Houston area and experiencing mild flu-like symptoms.
Earlier Tuesday, Montgomery County officials announced their first positive test for coronavirus, a man in his 40s who is isolated in an unspecified hospital. According to the Texas Tribune, Montgomery County officials said Wednesday that they are uncertain how the man contracted the disease, saying he had not traveled outside Texas — indicating that he might be the state’s first case of community spread of COVID-19.
“Yesterday changed things,” Turner said Wednesday of the case in Montgomery County. “That was evidence of some community spread.”
There previously were 12 coronavirus cases reported by Houston-area health departments – two in the City of Houston, four in unincorporated northwest Harris County and six in Fort Bend County – and government officials said all of them are between 60 and 70 years old and recently traveled on the same cruise ship in Egypt.
Several organizations beyond the rodeo have taken precautions by asking groups of people to quarantine or by limiting public gatherings.
Harris County said it is believed the coronavirus is spread through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes, so all Houston-area residents are urged to wash their hands often with soap water or use hand sanitizer that is alcohol-based, avoid touching their mouths, eyes and noses with unwashed hands, cover their mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing, avoid contact with people who are sick and clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough and shortness of breath, and the elderly as well as people with underlying health conditions are at higher risk for serious complications from the disease.
The owner of a Vietnamese restaurant in the Heights, Jenni’s Noodle House at 602 E. 20th St., said the restaurant may ask customers to leave if they appear sick or exhibit excessive coughing or sneezing. Jenni Tranweaver said the decision was made on behalf of employees who expressed concern.
Most hospitals in the Houston region – including the two Memorial Hermann facilities in the Heights area – have instituted new screening and visitor policies in an attempt to reduce exposure to COVID-19. Memorial Hermann said last weekend that 11 of its healthcare workers at an unspecified facility were under quarantine after coming into contact with a coronavirus patient, and early this week the health system said all of its volunteers and non-essential staff who are older than 60 had been sent home until further notice.
Rice University, where one of the Houston area’s coronavirus patients works, canceled classes for the week ahead of Spring Break next week. Houston ISD, the largest school district in Texas, said Monday that some of its campuses would be sanitized and that “several” employees were under a 14-day quarantine after recently visiting a country on the CDC’s warning list or being closely related to someone who did.
The Houston Museum of Natural Science announced that 37 people who recently traveled to Egypt as part of a trip it sponsored, including two museum staff members, were asked by the City of Houston to isolate themselves for 14 days.
In Tuesday night’s announcement about the woman who tested positive for coronavirus after being in Italy, Harris County asked people who sat near her on two March 3 international flights to self-isolate and contact their healthcare provider and local health department. The impacted passengers sat in business/first class on Lufthansa flight 307, which traveled from Florence, Italy, to Frankfurt, Germany, from 10:05 a.m.-11:45 a.m., and on United Airlines flight 47 from Frankfurt to Houston between 1:50-6:10 p.m.
County officials also have urged residents who feel sick to contact their healthcare provider, describe their symptoms and travel history and if they have had contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19.
The Houston Health Department has opened a call center for city residents with questions about COVID-19. They can call 832-393-4220 between 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday.
“We’re doing this in order to save lives,” said Dr. David Persse of the Houston Health Department. “We have every reason to expect – and hopefully I’m wrong – that it can spread to many, many people in our community.”