The stock at Complete Medical Supply used to include multiple boxes of N95 masks, which are personal respirators that protect wearers from airborne particles. For about a month, though, owner Zain Pirani said he’s been unable to order any from his vendors.
Other types of facemasks are becoming nearly as scarce at the medical equipment store located at 1714 W. 18th St., which offers home health products and also sells supplies to local doctors’ offices and clinics. Pirani said several hundred masks are being scooped up every couple days, to the point he’s having a hard time keeping them on his shelves, and hand sanitizer also has been a hot item in recent weeks.
He said he’s been fielding at least 50 phone calls a day from people in search of those items.
“Obviously, when there’s a state of panic, people are going to rush to all their options,” Pirani said.
Much of Houston, along with the rest of the state, country and world, is spooked about the spread of coronavirus and scrambling to prepare for what appears to be an imminent arrival. The top health officials for both the City of Houston and Harris County said Monday that it was no longer a matter of “if” the infectious disease will make its way to the region, but rather a question of “when.”
“It looks like there will be cases here in the Houston area,” Dr. John Butler, the infectious disease physician for Memorial Hermann Health System, said Monday.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Fort Bend County Health and Human Services announced that it had identified what it called the first presumptive positive case of COVID-19 in Fort Bend County. A department spokesperson said a test came back positive for a 70-year-old man who lives in the county and recently traveled abroad.
It is the first COVID-19 case in the Houston area.
According to information on the website for Harris County Public Health, as of Tuesday night there had been more than 93,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new strain of coronavirus that first appeared in Wuhan, China, in December, resulting in nearly 3,200 deaths globally. The disease has appeared on six continents and in 82 countries, with 125 cases in the United States.
Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Monday there had been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Harris County, although local officials were awaiting the results of a coronavirus test administered to a quarantined Rice University employee suspected of being infected. They said the lab work was to be received Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and then it would take between 24 and 72 hours to obtain the results.
“I recognize that people are anxious, they’re scared, and it makes sense for the community to feel that way,” Hidalgo said. “It’s a scary situation. It’s an uncertain situation.”
While there are many unknowns associated with the new strain of coronavirus, including whether it will dissipate in warm weather like the flu virus, Hidalgo said she wanted citizens to know that city and county officials have been in concert in an attempt to prepare for an outbreak and minimize its impact. She said they also have communicated with the region’s major hospital networks such as Memorial Hermann and Houston Methodist.
Butler said all of Memorial Hermann’s hospitals, including Memorial Hermann Greater Heights Hospital at 1635 N Loop W, are equipped to receive and care for coronavirus patients and have the capability to keep them separated from others.
“Here we have the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical center in the world, and we have some of the world’s greatest experts to take care of complicated illnesses,” said Dr. David Persse, the top health official for the City of Houston. “So we’re confident that if anyone should become ill, they should be well-cared for in Houston-Harris County.”
Persse said the symptomology for COVID-19 is similar to that of the cold and flu. And as with those conditions and other respiratory illnesses, the spread of the new disease can be minimized by frequently washing hands and commonly touched surfaces, covering faces when coughing and sneezing, and avoiding physical contact with those who are sick.
Citizens should avoid traveling to places where the disease has been most prevalent – China, Iran, Italy and South Korea – and Hidalgo urged Houstonians to refrain from purchasing facemasks so they can be reserved for medical professionals. She also said people should contact their healthcare providers if they suspect they have been infected with coronavirus, adding that their identities will be kept confidential.
Hidalgo said community members without health insurance can call 2-1-1 to be referred to a doctor. She also said undocumented immigrants can be examined at Harris Health System and will not be asked about their immigration status.
The county has created a “rumor control” page to dispel myths about the coronavirus, including the notion that it is unsafe to visit Houston’s Chinatown. Butler said there is “really no evidence” that products shipped from Asian countries can transit COVID-19.
Persse said it’s important to remember that other epidemics in recent years, such as the Ebola, H1N1, MERS and SARS viruses – the latter two also are forms of coronavirus – dissipated without the benefit of vaccines.
“There was no magic pill or treatment or medicine that stopped those epidemics,” Persse said. “What stopped those epidemics, what stopped the spread of those, was really a herculean effort on the part of public health to identify cases, people felt comfortable coming forward, they were able to identify cases, then isolate those cases and do appropriate quarantining.
“More importantly than that, what stopped those epidemics was people washing their hands, covering their coughs, not going to work when they’re ill and following those personal hygiene things we’ve been talking about again and again.”