SAN PATRICIO COUNTY – A lot has been said about the novel coronavirus and its spread through Texas, most recently with an individual who was supposedly released from quarantine and went for a stroll through North Star Mall in San Antonio.

While the facts on that issue are a little muddled, since the six patients quarantined at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio last month, there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19, the actual name of the virus that’s causing a panic all over Texas.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines a coronavirus as a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. A novel coronavirus is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans.

According to WHO, there have been 12 deaths in the United States – 11 in Washington state and one in California — and more than 20 states have reported cases of the virus as of publication. The Center for Disease Control is reporting that 1,526 patients have been tested for COVID-19 in the UNited States and 99 cases have been confirmed as of March 5.

The virus hits home

To show how fast the virus is spreading though, during an interview with San Patricio County Health Department Public Health Preparedness Manager Clara Rieder on Wednesday, March 4, she confirmed that there were no cases of COVID-19 in Texas.

By that evening the Texas Department of Health and Human Services released a statement saying that the state now had its first positive test result for COVID-19 in Fort Bend County, just outside of Houston.

The Texas DSHS said in a statement, “A travel-related case in Texas doesn’t indicate spread within the state, but DSHS, the Texas Division of Emergency Management, and all state agencies continue their ongoing preparations so that all of state government is working together to limit the spread of the virus and protect Texans. The immediate risk to most Texans remains low.”

Industry fears

One issue that’s weighing heavily on San Patricio County residents’ minds is, especially in the area where industrial growth is heavy, what about the large vessels and equipment coming and going to and from China?

Gulf Coast Growth Ventures’ (GCGV) ExxonMobil facility is building their plant with enormous modules coming from other countries and Moda Midstream has very large crude carriers coming and going from overseas into Ingleside weekly. Cheniere has PetroChina as one of their customers and voestalpine supplies its products to customers in Europe where Italy recently shut down all of their schools due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

All of these facts are not lost on San Patricio County emergency management departments and assure the public that they are prepared.

“Most of that is done on international waters so what happens when a ship comes in is they have to contact the Coast Guard and inform them of any individual that is on the ship that is sick or has been sick, and they will deal with it first,” Rieder said. “At this moment most of (ship workers) are staying on the vessels. So far, from what I hear from the Coast Guard, there aren’t any ships that are reporting any illnesses.

“I do know that industry partners are aware that if for some reason they do see signs or symptoms on individuals on the ship that they are to contact my office, and they do have contingency plans if for some reason they do have individuals that are sick.”

GCGV Government Affairs Manager Brandon Maxwell said in a statement, “Gulf Coast Growth Ventures has not experienced any significant impacts to the project nor to the anticipated start-up schedule as a result of the novel coronavirus. Each day our focus is on ensuring the safety and health of our workforce around the world as well as the communities in which we operate. But we will continue to monitor the situation and will follow the guidance from health authorities.”

County ties 

TEDA TPCO is an actual company from China located in Gregory that is feeling the strain from COVID-19 as some of its workforce is from the country and here on work visas. The original idea was the workers would be here until their visas expired then employees would go back to their home country being replaced by more workers from China.

Now that is not the case.

With travel to and from China halted completely, TEDA TPCO will be out of workers once their visas expire.

SPC Judge David Krebs even said one of their employees had their child come over in January and was quarantined for the 14 days before being released and was cleared to enter school in the county.

“They all say there is no risk of anything right now,” Krebs said. “They said that catching the flu is three times greater than catching COVID-19.

“Masks don’t work because those particles can still travel through those masks. The ones that do work cost around $100 micron filters. The media is really blowing it out of control. The media just picks it up and runs with it trying to make a good story. That’s what sells TV time, and that’s what sells newspapers.

“The chances of catching the virus are very, very, very slim right now.”

Even so, Krebs and county courthouse employees aren’t mitigating the risks involved as they have placed hand sanitizer at every entrance of each courtroom and are disinfecting them when they are empty.

Medical testing

Rieder added that in order for individuals to be tested, they have to meet certain criteria beforehand, so it’s not just an ordinary test that can be performed at the doctor’s office; she thinks that eventually it will come to that, but its not quite there just yet.

Two days after speaking with her, Governor Greg Abbott held a joint press conference with Department of State Health Services Commissioner John Hellerstedt, M.D. and Texas Division of Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd and announced that the state now has the capacity to test for COVID-19 with six public health labs within Texas’ Laboratory Response Network now equipped to perform COVID-19 testing, with the remaining four being fully equipped in the coming days.

While having a testing site nearby could be a good thing if you think you may have the virus, it could also bring the virus closer to home should someone from another city be sent for testing there.

Those four labs are located in Tyler, San Antonio, Harlingen and Corpus Christi – literally in the county’s backyard.

Foreign shipments

For people who have ordered items from China before the outbreak and are worried about their shipments being contaminated, the solution is pretty simple.

“Just spray the package with Lysol and clean the item with Lysol wipes and wait 15 minutes then it will be ok,” Rieder said. “People should remember that between September 2019 and January 2020 there have been more than 2,560 cases of death due to the flu, just in the state of Texas alone. And out of those, 15 were pediatric cases.”

Judge Krebs added, “If the public does want to do something to take extra precautions, just wash your hands and don’t drink out of the same glasses as anyone else. That’s it.”