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Texas official: Public health disaster declaration not yet needed

Austin American-Statesman - 3/10/2020

The head of the Texas Department of State Health Services said Tuesday he does not yet see a need to declare a public health disaster in Texas amid the spread of the coronavirus, before adding that such a decision is a moving target.

"This is a very rapidly moving situation," John Hellerstedt, agency commissioner, told the Texas House Public Health Committee. "I can't tell you that tomorrow it won't be a different circumstance."

Lawmakers heard from a number of experts during the five-hour hearing, including education officials, local officials from San Antonio and Houston, pharmaceutical experts and health care professionals.

Hi, #txlege. I'm covering the House Public Health committee hearing to discuss "the state's preparedness on the coronavirus."

They're getting started now. I'll be tweeting updates for @statesman. pic.twitter.com/YLAaLxsscW

-- Nicole Cobler (@nicolecobler) March 10, 2020 Sixteen people have tested positive for coronavirus in Texas, as of Tuesday afternoon, Texas health officials said. The latest cases are a person in Gregg County, in East Texas, and a woman and her 3-year-old child in Frisco, north of Dallas. The woman's husband also has coronavirus, officials announced Monday, the first known Texas case from a domestic transmission.

But Hellerstedt said those cases don't yet reach the threshold for declaring a public health disaster, which would pave the way for control measures of social distancing. He said it would not entitle the state to additional resources and test kits from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, grilled Hellerstedt about the possibility of declaring a public health disaster, saying he sees no downside.

"I don't want a floating measure of when it's time to get to that next step in declaring a disaster," Lucio said. "I don't care about the politics of this issue. I just care about protecting Texans."

So far, the state has enough testing kits for the virus, Hellerstedt said. Each kit has the capability to test several hundred people, and those tests are shipped off to be processed at a public health or private lab. Testing won't be available at a patient's point of care for several months, he estimated.

Austin is one of several cities in Texas capable of testing for the virus.

<strong id="strong-107a574023457ffaea709524aad9fa66">READ MORE: Austin, other Texas cities now can test for coronavirus, Abbott says

Hellerstedt said Texans' top priority should be preventing the spread of the coronavirus by washing hands, covering coughs and staying home while sick.

"If we take steps to protect ourselves, our neighbors and our coworkers, we will all benefit," he said. ""We're going to need to start doing things to decrease the spread of the virus."

Seniors and those with underlying health issues, hypertension and diabetes are at risk for having a more severe and prolonged case, Hellerstedt said.

David Persse, health authority for the Houston Health Department, warned that coronavirus has the potential to spread to a much higher percentage of the population than the seasonal flu. The new coronavirus is unlike the seasonal flu because there is no vaccine and herd immunity, he said.

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath said the agency is leaving school closures up to individual districts and recommended that school districts "up their game on cleaning processes."

<strong id="strong-83e9edc3055986a0263bb3cbe9d34595">READ MORE: State Senate hearings canceled amid coronavirus concerns

The House panel met Tuesday, even as other committee hearings had been canceled. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick canceled Senate committee hearings this month over concerns about the coronavirus.

House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Lake Jackson, said he would leave the decision whether to cancel House hearings up to committee leaders.

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