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As Outbreak Evolves, State And Local Leaders Prepare For Potential Spread Of Coronavirus

Office Of The Governor
Texas Governor Greg Abbott gives an update on the state's ability to test for COVID-19.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced Thursday that six of the state's 10 public health labs can now test for COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.

"The remaining will be online by the end of this month," Abbott said. "Once the other public health labs in the state complete the testing validation process and begin testing, the state public health lab network will be able to process more than 125 COVID-19 tests per day."

With limited capacity, test kits are a precious resource, said Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services. He said doctors can determine whether patients need to be tested.

"If the physician then in their judgement says, 'I really do want to proceed with seeing whether or not testing is appropriate for this person,' we would ask them to contact their health department, and we can have a conversation about it," Hellerstedt said.

This week, Dallas and Tarrant Counties announced they have the capability to test locally for COVID-19. Until now, those jurisdictions were sending off samples to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing. Getting results that way took several days. Now, results could be available the same day.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said he's confident county leaders are prepared to respond to the possible spread of coronavirus. Jenkins recalled the county's handling of the Ebola outbreakin 2014.

"Many of the major players are the same, and so drilling together every year, having been through this — some of the players went through West Nile Virus with us in 2012 as well — and so that gives you that confidence in each other," Jenkins said.

Most reported casesof the coronavirus have been in China. The respiratory illness spreads from person to person. Symptoms can include fever, cough and shortness of breath. For most people, the disease is not deadly.

The outbreak is evolving rapidly. On Wednesday, state health officials confirmedTexas' first positive case of coronavirus outside of quarantine. The patient in Fort Bend County recently returned from traveling abroad. Four more travel-related cases were later confirmed in Harris County.

Dr. Philip Huang, director of Dallas County Health and Human Services, said his department is preparing for any level of response that may be needed. Huang said emergency funding from the federal government would bolster those efforts.

"Building and supporting our laboratory capacity is one of the things, but all of the other epidemiologic support, it's going to take a lot of manpower for the realities of whatever scenario may play out," Huang said.

There's currently no vaccine for coronavirus. Huang says local employers and school districts should plan for ways to accommodate what's known as "social distancing" if needed, avoiding places where people are in close contact. Dallas County isn't taking those steps yet, but Huang said having plans in place will minimize disruption in case of an outbreak.

"In schools, first you might make the class sizes smaller, put more space between the people," he said. "The telecommuting and teleworking for worksites, those are all non-pharmaceutical interventions that can be made." 

Syeda Hasan is the Elections Editor and Reporter at KERA. Before moving into that role, she covered mental health at the station. A Houston native, her journalism career has taken her to public radio newsrooms around Texas.