Coronavirus: A Texas Medical Center continuing update

UPDATE | April 27, 2020, 4:20 P.M.: Earlier this afternoon, Gov. Greg Abbott announced his tiered plan to reopen Texas.

After the state stay-at-home order expires on April 30, the first phase of Abbott’s strategy will allow retail stores, restaurants, movie theaters and malls to reopen on May 1 at no more than 25 percent capacity. Museums and libraries also will be allowed to reopen their doors, but all hands-on exhibits must remain closed.

Outdoor sports that keep a certain distance, such as golf and tennis, will be allowed but limited to no more than four people at a time.

Phase 2 of Abbott’s plan could go into effect as soon as May 18.

“Phase 2 will open more businesses and allow the businesses open in Phase 1 to expand their operations. We need to see two weeks of data to confirm no flare-up of COVID-19,” Abbott said. “That is exactly why now, more than ever, Texans must continue safe distancing practices. If we do that, we will be able to expand into Phase 2, opening up our economy even more.”

Barbershops, hair salons, bars and gyms will remain closed for now. The governor said he is aiming for “on or no later than mid-May” to reopen those businesses.

Abbott’s executive order supersedes orders set at the local level.

A screenshot of Gov. Greg Abbott during his press conference on Monday, April 27, 2020.

During Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s regular daily briefing, held shortly after Abbott’s news conference, Turner commented on the governor’s plan to reopen, saying “there are still things we need to do.” Turner emphasized the need for more widespread testing to better understand where the virus that causes COVID-19 is circulating and “whether or not we’re getting our arms around this virus.”

There are 74 new COVID-19 cases and 4 new deaths in the city of Houston, bringing the total to 3,358 cases and 46 deaths.

“The key to stopping the community spread of the coronavirus in our city is in our practice of social distancing, good hygiene, wearing face coverings … and testing, testing, testing,” Turner said. “It’s testing for the city of Houston that we will continue to focus on and place a great deal of emphasis on. I know people want to open up. I got that. I understand that, but what drives me as the mayor of Houston at this point … is local cases more prevalent in at-risk neighborhoods.”

Earlier Monday, Turner announced a new COVID-19 testing site for the Gulfgate area, which has more vulnerable and high-risk populations.

Located at the Barnett Sport Complex, the United Memorial Medical Center testing site is open to everyone—with or without symptoms—at no cost.

“It is important for us to know who has it and who doesn’t have it in order to send people back to work in a safe and responsible way,” Turner said.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced this morning two additional testing initiatives to combat COVID-19: the formation of a countywide testing strike team and the opening of two additional pop-up testing locations.

Beginning April 28, the strike team—which will include county epidemiologists, public health experts, social workers and testing staff—will be deployed to congregate care facilities at high risk of COVID-19 spread to perform site assessments, make recommendations or issue control orders as needed. The strike team will start with one nursing home a day at first, then expand to other facilities, such as senior centers and shelters.

“In some ways these facilities are the path of least resistance for the virus,” Hidalgo said during her news conference, adding that folks who live in homeless shelters and senior living facilities “are sitting ducks right now and we can’t allow that.”

Hidalgo also noted that she is doubling the number of pop-up or mobile testing sites from two to four.

Two mobile sites will be located in Tomball and southeast Houston on Monday and Wednesday, then move to southwest Houston and Crosby from Thursday through Saturday. The locations of the other two mobile sites will be announced later.

Each mobile testing site has the capability to test up to 150 individuals per day. The two fixed sites in Katy and Baytown each can test up to 500 daily. — Shanley Pierce

UPDATE | April 24, 2020, 4:45 p.m.: The Houston Health Department (HHD) reported 74 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, bringing the total to 3,120.

HHD also reported one new death due to COVID-19, bringing the city’s total coronavirus fatalities to 35. This was the first death recorded after four consecutive days with no fatalities.

“The one new death is a white non-Hispanic male in his 70s with no known underlying health condition,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner at a Friday press briefing. “This is the first time we are reporting the death of someone with no known underlying health conditions.”

Data from Houston’s hospital systems suggests that the in-hospital population of individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 has flattened, said David Persse, M.D., the city’s health authority.

“We’re not coming down yet. We’ve plateaued. We are right now at the same pace as the power of this virus,” Persse said, adding that citizens should continue to wear masks and practice social distancing. “Don’t take your foot off the brake. It’s working.”

Starting Monday, Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center (GCRBC) will begin taking plasma from individuals who tested positive for COVID-19 and recovered. Volunteers must have documented proof of a positive test; the center will work with them to make sure the infection is gone. Studies have shown that antibodies in the plasma of recovered COVID-19 patients may help critically ill COVID-19 patients recover. The plasma is administered via transfusion.

“It takes less than an hour to give plasma,” Persse said. “It’s no more difficult than giving blood.”

Volunteers interested in donating plasma can get more information at the GCRBC website, giveblood.org, or by calling 713-791-6608 starting Monday, April 27.

The city’s newly-formed Health Equity Response (HER) task force has already received its first shipment of 50,000 masks and distributed them throughout the city. HER is designed to bring information and supplies to those most at risk and disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The task force plans to distribute more than 200,000 masks, Turner said.

The recently-formed Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD) Food Assistance Program will expand deliveries being made directly to people’s homes. The program will deliver food to 1,000 households per week for the next two weeks.

“We are asking the community to be patient,” said Gabe Cazares, MOPD director. “We are working as quickly as possible.”

Members of the Houston Health Department and volunteers from the Houston Fire Department are visiting more than 300 nursing homes and assisted living centers to provide COVID-19 education and assistance to residents and employees, including screening and monitoring. Getting ahead of the virus will help prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the most vulnerable, city officials said. — Maggie Galehouse 

UPDATE | April 23, 2020, 5:45 p.m.:  Mayor Sylvester Turner announced today during an afternoon press conference that the Houston Health Department reported 71 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the city’s total to 2,346. There were no deaths today, marking the fourth consecutive day that Houston has reported no fatalities from COVID-19.

Houston METRO Board Chair Carrin Patman shared how the Houston METRO is working to protect its employees and riders during the pandemic. Ridership has dipped in all sectors but less for the TMC and its park and rides. The transit authority has implemented social distancing practices on buses, suspended fares, initiated temperature checks when employees arrive to work and will be supplying masks to riders as available.

Turner stressed the importance of wearing masks to comply with the new order from Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, effective Monday, April 27.  Joining the press conference virtually to add their support to the Mask Up Houston campaign (#MaskUpHOU) were Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles, Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa and local rapper Slim Thug.

“If you do have to leave the house, I would strongly suggest that you mask up and glove up and just sanitize on the regular,” said Slim Thug, who has made a full recovery from COVID-19.

Turner emphasized that his goal was to provide masks rather than simply enforce the order, saying the city should not have a mandate without providing adequate resources.

“Masks over citations,” Turner said. “We don’t give citations. We give masks or face coverings.”

To support the city’s most vulnerable communities, Turner announced a new Health Equity Response task force that will focus on bringing more information and more supplies to those most at risk and disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Strategies include a public health education campaign to encourage residents in the highest risk neighborhoods to take additional precautions to protect themselves and others; direct community support to distribute essential supplies to Houstonians, including masks; and a Houston health equity response fund to accept donations that will provide resources to those who need them most.

“Here in Houston, as in many other parts of our nation, the pandemic is magnifying the pre-existing health disparities and socioeconomic challenges facing our most vulnerable communities,” said Shannon Buggs, Complete Communities director at the mayor’s office and a member of the new task force. “Before COVID-19, we already knew that 39 percent of Houstonian households didn’t have $400 for an emergency. Now, despite stay-at-home orders, only 1 out of every 5 black workers and 1 out of every 6 Latino workers in the United States actually can work from home, compared with 30 percent of white workers and 37 percent of Asian workers. … Mayor Turner appointed the Health Equity Response task force to keep the focus on the most acute and critical needs.”

Turner also announced an initiative for members of local faith communities to help make more than 1 million masks.

“We are committed to not leaving anyone behind,” Turner said. “The City of Houston is the most diverse city in the country, and in order to make sure that we touch the needs, it is important that this team be as diverse as possible. And we are committed to doing just that. …We want to make sure that we are touching, and working very closely, with all of our communities, especially those who are at risk and are most vulnerable.”

Earlier today, Harris County Public Health (HCPH) announced its revamped COVID-19 online self-assessment tool to improve the testing process with advanced scheduling options. Testing is free and open to the public, regardless of citizenship status, but all individuals must register first and obtain a unique identification code. More information about the assessment can be found at www.readyharris.org or www.hcphtx.org or by calling 832-927-7575.

Additionally, the Texas Policy Lab (TPL) in Rice University’s School of Social Sciences has joined Hidalgo’s office in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. TPL is drawing upon their expertise to provide the county with relevant data, including evaluation of the effectiveness of the county’s Stay Home, Work Safe order. — Alexandra Becker

UPDATE | April 22, 2020, 6 p.m.: Harris County will require face coverings in public beginning Monday, County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced in a joint news conference.

The order applies to people 10 and older for 30 days beginning April 27 with exceptions for people with health conditions, those exercising alone or while driving and eating. Residents have been given several days to acquire or make a face covering, which doesn’t have to be medical grade, but must be a mask or other item that protects the nose and mouth. Order violators apprehended at the discretion of law enforcement agencies could face a $1,000 fine or up to 180 days in jail.

“Face coverings are not a substitute for social distancing,” Hidalgo said. “We are still under a stay home, work safe order. We should not be out unless absolutely necessary. And if we do this, we will get that curve down to where it needs to be to where we can actually begin reopening things and do so in a way that is sustainable.”

Turner noted that the city’s COVID-19 deaths remained at 34 for the third consecutive day. He also mentioned reports from the Texas Medical Center that show COVID-19 discharges outnumber current hospitalizations for TMC-affiliated institutions.

“A face covering will help slow the spread of this coronavirus and can save lives,” the mayor said. “Wearing a face covering protects other people from you because you do not know if you are a carrier and can transmit the virus. You can be asymptomatic.”

David Persse, M.D., the city’s public health authority, pressed the importance of face coverings given the predominance of “asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic or minimally symptomatic spread” and how measures taken so far have staved off the virus, which is circulating in the community, from devastating the area with illness, hospitalizations and deaths.

Texas Medical Center COVID-19 data released April 22, 2020.

“From my standpoint, the most important number for us to be watching are the hospitalization numbers,” he said. “In order to save lives, we have to make sure that if somebody needs a hospital bed, that there is a hospital bed available for them. As a community, because of the things that we have done—including wearing facial coverings, social distancing and not gathering in large groups–we have been, actually, quite successful. … The overall death count in this area compared to major urban areas across the nation, per capita, is remarkably low. That’s because of the things that we have been doing. It’s not in spite—it is directly because of.”

Harris County Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah, M.D., MPH recognized Wednesday as Earth Day and advised against improperly disposing of protective items such as gloves by throwing them on the ground.

“Don’t litter. Don’t ruin our community,” he said. “We are making progress.” — Cindy George

UPDATE | April 21, 2020, 4:30 p.m.: Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday announced a food assistance program for people with disabilities that will deliver food and other items directly to the homes of individuals who are unable to get to food distribution centers as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

“There are food insecurities in our city,” Turner said. “We do not want to leave anyone behind.”

Gabe Cazares, director of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, explained that the MOPD Food Assistance Program was made possible by the city’s community partners at Walmart, Sam’s Club, the Houston Food Bank and Houston Metro.

“We are so grateful for our partners,” Cazares said. “Walmart and Sam’s Club contributed about $30,000 worth of goods and the Houston Food Bank has made a substantial contribution, as well.”

Houston Metro will deliver boxes to people’s homes that include sealed food that can be stored at room temperature, fresh produce and basic home necessities. The boxes are being assembled at the city’s West End Multi-Service Center over the next few days. Deliveries will begin on Friday, April 24.

To access the program, visit houstontx.gov/disabilities or call 832-394-0814.

Mayor Turner also reported 20 new COVID-19 cases today in Houston and zero deaths related to the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. This is the second consecutive day the city has reported no COVID-19 deaths. — Maggie Galehouse

UPDATE | April 20, 2020, 4 p.m.: Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced in separate news conferences Monday the appointment of two relief and recovery czars focused on the long-term effects of the COVID-19 crisis. Turner named Marvin Odum, the former president of Shell Oil, to lead recovery efforts for the city of Houston. Hidalgo appointed State Rep. Armando Walle to lead recovery efforts in Harris County.

Marvin Odum, who was named the COVID-19 relief and recovery czar for the city of Houston, speaks Monday at Mayor Sylvester Turner’s press conference.

“This is about keeping people safe, getting people back to work and recharging our economy,” Odum said at Turner’s gathering.

Odum, who served as chief recovery officer for the city after Hurricane Harvey, identified four key areas of focus: determining how testing and contact tracing for COVID-19 can be applied to a back-to-work plan that develops and sustains confidence among Houstonians; identifying problems that may arise and making the necessary adjustments with speed and transparency; working with the federal government to spend federal and local money wisely; and developing a plan to address future viral attacks on the city.

Odum said he and Walle would be “working hand-in-hand to represent the people of Houston and Harris County.”

Both czar roles are unpaid, volunteer positions.

In a morning briefing, Hidalgo explained her appointment of Walle, who represents District 140 in the Texas Legislature.

“We need someone who will be laser-focused on helping families right now and combatting the long-term economic effects and the long-term human impacts of this crisis,” Hidalgo said. “Our goal of this is to make sure our relief and recovery is inclusive, fast and coordinated.”

Judge Hidalgo also noted that her appointment of Walle was, in part, because of his experience working in underserved areas.

“He represents the Aldine area and knows the struggles that families in unincorporated Harris County face every day,” Hidalgo said.

Walle, who spoke briefly at the press conference, said the effort will be inclusive and collaborative.

“We expect to work with a wide variety of reasonable stakeholders in this effort, including from the private sector, philanthropy, faith-based organizations, nonprofits and local governments—from the City of Houston to all our smaller municipalities—and including our unincorporated part of the region, which is about over two million people in unincorporated Harris County,” Walle said. “We need to work together on an inclusive recovery that responsibly insures the health and economic well-being of the people of Harris County. We need to save lives and also save livelihoods.”

Hidalgo also noted that the crisis is by no means over but that the curve in the Greater Houston Area is flattening because of social distancing measures.

“We’re not out of the woods, so we’ll continue to go through this information together, but essentially, you can see the intake’s flat, and if we all do our part, eventually that will fall down and we’ll all be in a place to begin lifting our restrictions. But how quickly we do that will depend on each of you to continue to stay home so that that curve actually hits its peak and lowers,” Hidalgo said. “If we work together now, the sum of each of our parts is what’s going to get the economy back on track.”

Harris County Public Health (HCPH) Executive Director Umair Shah, M.D., MPH, also spoke at Hidalgo’s news conference, noting that the county has expanded testing criteria to individuals who are asymptomatic but believe they may have come into contact with someone positive for COVID-19. He said HCPH encourages individuals to get tested in an effort to gain a better understanding of the disease’s scope throughout the Houston region.

Although the fatalities in Houston did not rise on Monday—total deaths remain at 34—the Houston Health Department reported 107 positive COVID-19 cases for a total of 2,923. — Alexandra Becker and Maggie Galehouse

UPDATE | April 17, 2020, 5:30 p.m.: On Friday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced three executive orders that will begin the process of reopening the state.

“Because of the efforts of everyone to slow the spread, we are now beginning to see glimmers that the worst of COVID-19 may soon be behind us,” Abbott said during a press conference earlier this afternoon.

The governor’s executive order established the Statewide Strike Force to Open Texas, which includes Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Comptroller Glen Hegar, along with a team of state health experts and business leaders, to gather information and make recommendations regarding the process and safe practices for businesses to follow in order to safely reopen.

With Texas boasting the second-most recoveries from COVID-19 of all states in the country, Abbott said he plans to take a cautious, staged approach to reopening.

As part of Abbott’s executive order, state parks will reopen Monday, April 20 with new visitor guidelines. All visitors are required to wear face coverings or masks, must stand six feet away from people who are not within the same household and are prohibited from gathering in groups larger than five.

Effective Wednesday, April 22, current restrictions on nonessential medical procedures will be loosened to allow doctors, nurses and medical staff to perform procedures, such as cancer diagnostic testing.

Starting Friday, April 24, all retail stores in the state should be able to operate “retail-to-go,” allowing customers to place orders online and pick up products or have them delivered while minimizing contact, Abbott said.

“We’ve shown that we can both continue our efforts to contain the coronavirus, while also adopting safe standards that will allow us to begin the process of reopening business in Texas,” Abbott said. “Because we’ve seen that this model works, while also containing COVID-19, we believe all stores in Texas should be able to operate retail-to-go beginning next Friday.”

In addition, all classrooms will remain closed for the remainder of the 2019–2020 school year.

More details about the governor’s plan to reopen Texas will be announced on Monday, April 27.

While Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has yet to unveil his plans to reopen the city, he stressed the importance of a “measured approach.”

“The last thing I would want to do … is to change course too quickly and we end up seeing things starting to spike,” Turner said during his daily press conference this afternoon, shortly after Abbott’s announcement. “If we take our foot off the brake, we can easily start moving back in the other direction.”

On Monday, Turner plans to announce a local leader who will help lead the city’s recovery as well as provide more information about plans to reopen. For now, he said he anticipates some restrictions will remain through the end of May, especially city operations and the cancellation of city-sponsored and permitted events, in order to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Houston.

As of today, there are 114 new cases in Houston, bringing the total to 2,570 confirmed infections, and 31 deaths.

“We are still going through this storm, and we are not yet out of the storm,” Turner said. “I know Gov. Abbott made an announcement earlier today about phasing in the reopening of Texas. I certainly look forward to hearing more of the details. We are assessing, even now, the things he had to say and his executive orders.” — Shanley Pierce

UPDATE | April 16, 2020, 4:30 p.m.: The City of Houston received a $100,000 grant and 10,000 diagnostic testing kits from Hyundai Motor America to allow for the expansion of diagnostic testing in the city to combat COVID-19.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee presents a check of $100,000 to Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner as part of a grant from Hyundai Motor America to support efforts combatting COVID-19.

“We know that the state of Texas has not fared well in testing—14,624 cases … and 318 deaths—but it matters to us that we continue to work,” U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said during Mayor Sylvester Turner’s daily briefing this afternoon. “There are people now as we stand here today that are in hospitals fighting for their lives in Houston and Harris County. Many of those were not tested. We do not want that to be our future. We’re sad that it is our past.”

The grant and testing kits, valued at approximately $150,000, will go to the Houston Health Foundation, which supports the work of the Houston Health Department.

“We continue to recognize the need for expanding testing throughout Houston and Harris County, and this grant will allow us to work with a variety of community-based organizations to further that goal,” Turner said. “It is imperative that we expand into neighborhoods, given the Houston Health Department’s directive to do exactly that.”

Houston was one of several cities Hyundai selected—including Chicago, Detroit and New Orleans—to receive the gift, which is part of the automaker’s larger effort to provide $4 million in grants to support COVID-19 drive-through testing to 22 hospitals nationwide, as well as 65,000 testing kits, through its Hyundai Hope On Wheels program.

While the White House released new guidance this afternoon that outlines the process for states to reopen in an effort to resuscitate the hard-hit economy, Turner said he and local officials are working on next steps, but “are not at this point ready to announce how we are going to open the city up. Those announcements and pronouncements will come, but not today.”

The mayor emphasized continuing with current public health and government orders.

“We are focusing right now on making sure that people are staying at home, working safely, engaging in social distancing and wearing face coverings because we are still in this storm,” he said. “I want people to be singularly focused on doing everything we can to keep themselves safe and to keep other people safe.” — Shanley Pierce

UPDATE | April 15, 2020, 4 p.m.: Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner reported 52 new cases of COVID-19 in Houston, for a total of 2,331 cases.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner conducts a press briefing on April 15.

In all, 26 individuals have died of COVID-19 in the city, Turner said at his daily press briefing, a tally that includes three newly reported deaths: an African American man in his 80s, an African American man in his 60s and a white, non-Hispanic man in his 50s. All three individuals suffered from underlying health conditions, the mayor said.

The race/ethnicity breakdown of Houston’s 26 COVID-19 deaths, according to the Houston Health Department:

Black/African American (non-Hispanic): (14) 54%
Hispanic/Latino: (6) 23%
White (non-Hispanic): (6) 23%

Elizabeth Killinger, president of NRG Retail and Reliant, announced a donation of $300,000 to Houston’s first responders and health care workers. Half will go to the city’s new Houston Frontline Fund, to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to the Police and Fire Department, Health Department and other essential personnel covering COVID-19 testing sites. The other $150,000 goes to the Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund, a collaboration between the United Way of Greater Houston and the Greater Houston Community Foundation.

A Houston Health Department analysis of COVID-19 deaths by jurisdiction, per 100,000 people, showed a comparatively low total for Houston, the mayor said. New York City has had 94.1 deaths per 100,000 people; New Orleans has seen 70.6 deaths per 100,000 people; Chicago has suffered 12.8 deaths per 100,000 people; and Houston has seen 1.1 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people.

Talks with Texas Medical Center leaders have been optimistic, Turner said. “As of today,” he said, “hospitals in our area can handle cases coming in at baseline capacity.”

The mayor closed the press briefing with a few words on the census. A little more than 40 percent of Houstonians have responded to Census 2020, the mayor said. He encouraged people to take the time to fill out their census forms, as a complete count will help lock in the proper resources and representation for myriad public health issues over the next 10 years. — Maggie Galehouse

UPDATE | April 14, 2020, 7:30 p.m.: As the city’s drive-through testing capability doubles this week, there’s also a new program providing a small number of COVID-19 tests in the homes of challenged individuals.

A city partnership with Houston innovation company imaware will offer 250 free at-home tests.

“We are identifying people who are in particular situations where there is no way they can get tested any other way and they have a need. We are referring them to imaware,” David Persse, M.D., the city’s health authority, said during the mayor’s news conference today. “We have 250 of them in a population of 2.5 million people. It’s a tiny number and we are trying to be very strategic with it.”

The people tested in their homes have been seniors 60 and older and persons with disabilities, Letosha E. Gale-Lowe, M.D., the Houston Health Department’s chief physician, said in a phone interview. When an individual calls the city’s COVID-19 hotline at 832-393-4220, a screener determines whether the person is eligible for in-home testing.

“A lot of times those folks require a lot of intensive resources to get them to a test site,” she said. “This is for those really, really vulnerable persons who need the testing, are most susceptible to the complications but just cannot get out—and their families can’t get them out.”

The nasopharyngeal swabs are administered by imaware personnel with results in 48 hours. Over the last two weeks, about 10 people have been tested at home, Gale-Lowe said.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said city officials are working to increase the number of test kits available beyond the two drive-through testing sites and the imaware program.

“If things go well, we can have some announcement on that within the next couple of days,” the mayor said. “We are looking at partnering with the private sector to really ramp up and expand the amount of testing that we can do.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were more than 600,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases nationwide with more than 14,600 confirmed cases in Texas, greater than 1,500 in Harris County and 2,279 in Houston. Deaths nationally have exceeded 25,000 with 318 in Texas, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, including 29 in Harris County and 23 in Houston.

All of Houston’s COVID-19 fatalities were individuals with underlying conditions. The city is also including race and ethnicity demographics to note that 12 of the 23—52 percent—were black patients. That means African Americans, who comprise about 23 percent of Houston’s population according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, are bearing a disproportionate, roughly double, burden of disease, according to the data. — Cindy George

UPDATE | April 13, 2020, 7 p.m.: With an increasing capacity to provide twice as many tests every day, the city’s COVID-19 testing sites are open to everyone now without the previous requirement of symptoms, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced today.

“We will begin offering testing to anyone who wants it, not just those who are showing symptoms,” he said. “Whether you are symptomatic or asymptomatic … you will be eligible to get testing. This will give us a better idea of community spread in the city of Houston.”

Those seeking testing must still contact the Houston Health Department’s COVID-19 call center at 832-393-4220 between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. to receive a unique ID code with details about where to go for testing and how to obtain results. Those who show up without this code will not be tested.

City testing sites have been providing 250 tests daily at each location, but will be increasing volume to offer 1,000 every day via 500 tests at each site.

Two new mobile units will provide drive-through testing at pop-up sites that will rotate across Harris County precincts starting Tuesday, County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced. Each site will be able to test 100 people daily which adds 200 tests per day. This augments a pair of Harris County Public Health stationary sites. They will increase capacity to 500 tests per location—1,000 daily combined—starting Wednesday.

A new private testing site on Houston’s south side at Cullen Middle School, 6900 Scott Street, opened today between the South Park and Sunnyside, which the mayor called a “vulnerable community.”

David Persse, M.D., the city’s health authority, said people with symptoms remain the top testing concern because they “push the virus through the community” but asymptomatic people can receive a false positive yet have COVID-19, so social distancing remains an important preventive public health action.

Reliable and robust testing as well as data on COVID-19 hospital admissions and deaths is vital information that officials will use to make decisions in the future, Persse said during the news conference.

A new daily dashboard now available at tmc.edu, the Texas Medical Center’s corporate website, provides updated data on the availability of ICU beds, ventilators, personal protective equipment and other pandemic metrics for TMC institutions operating across nine Houston-area counties. Those TMC affiliates are CHI St. Luke’s, Harris Health System, Houston Methodist, MD Anderson Cancer Center, Memorial Hermann and Texas Children’s Hospital. Facilities operated under other brands are not included in the data.

As of Monday afternoon, there are 579,000-plus cases nationwide, more than 13,900 confirmed cases in Texas, greater than 1,500 in Harris County and 2,239 in Houston. Deaths nationally have exceeded 23,000 with 287 in Texas, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, including 28 in Harris County and 18 in Houston. The city is reporting that all COVID-19 fatalities were individuals with underlying conditions and are also including race and ethnicity demographics to note that 10 of the 18 were black patients. — Cindy George

UPDATE | April 10, 2020, 6:45 p.m.: To discourage holiday gatherings such as Easter Egg hunts and enforce social distancing, Harris County and Houston parks are closed this weekend.

The city announced two additional COVID-19 deaths on Friday, bringing Houston’s reported total to 16. The city is also reporting race/ethnicity demographics on the deceased, which are now 56 percent black, 25 percent Hispanic and 19 percent Anglo.

A new daily dashboard now available at tmc.edu, the Texas Medical Center’s corporate website, provides updated data on the availability of ICU beds, ventilators, personal protective equipment and other pandemic metrics for TMC institutions operating across nine Houston-area counties. — Cindy George

UPDATE | April 9, 2020, 5:30 p.m.: There’s hope and speculation about whether the virus that causes COVID-19 will wane in warmer temperatures.

“I don’t know if it’s seasonal or not, but if there’s any place that’s going to find out, it’s going to be Houston, so let’s hope it is sensitive to the weather,” said David Persse, M.D., the city’s health authority said during a mayor’s news conference this week.

A “rapid expert consultation” sent to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine as well as from the organizations’ Standing Committee on Emerging Infectious Diseases and 21st Century Health Threats said hotter weather significantly diminishing the virus is unlikely, according to a story in The Washington Post.

The “seasonal variation” is unknown, but “some limited data support a potential waning of cases in warmer and more humid seasons,” the eight-page report said, adding that ongoing studies “as the pandemic unfolds could shed more light on the effects of climate on transmission.” — Cindy George

UPDATE | April 8, 2020, 4 p.m.: CDC releases COVID-19 contact tracing case study

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published a case study on community transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19 disease, at a funeral and a birthday party in Chicago.

“Community Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 at Two Family Gatherings — Chicago, Illinois, February-March 2020” published today in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) focuses on contact tracing, which is the monitoring of individuals potentially exposed to an infectious disease.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), contact tracing is defined by three critical steps: contact identification, contact listing and contact follow-up.

Contact identification includes determining all individuals an infected person has been physically near since the onset of illness. Contact listing includes informing those contacts about their possible exposure and providing information about the disease as well as protocol to minimize further spread. Contact follow-up is regular communication with all contacts for the purpose of monitoring for symptoms and testing for signs of infection.

The report is one of the first significant illustrations of how SARS-CoV-2 has spread throughout a community in the United States beyond household contacts, health care workers and residential facilities.

On average, there were four days between contact with an infected individual and the onset of symptoms.

During February and March, the Chicago Department of Public Health investigated a “large, multifamily cluster” of individuals with confirmed COVID-19 disease and their close contacts. The study illustrates 16 cases of confirmed or probable COVID-19 disease, including three deaths—all of which are believed to originate with a single individual (see A1.1 in the chart)—that spread at two different gatherings. The virus caused illness beyond the original infected contacts through additional activities, which included providing care for one of the infected individuals, household exposure, a hospital visit and attending church. The chart illustrates the movement of infection to and through the 16 individuals. The people in the study are referenced by their family cluster letter (A or B), then by the transmission generation (1 through 4) and finally by the sequence within each generation, indicating the order in which each individual was infected (1 through 7). Thus, the original case is A1.1.

The report reinforces the CDC’s urgent recommendations that individuals follow social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders to slow or stop transmission of SARS-CoV-2. — Alexandra Becker

UPDATE | April 7, 2020, 5 p.m.: Federal health partners helping at Houston’s COVID-19 testing sites will remain through April 30, said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner during an afternoon press conference at City Hall.

Six federal employees will continue to work at the city’s two testing sites until the end of the month and “the PPEs [personal protective equipment] will continue to come and the federal government will continue to assume 100 percent of the cost,” Turner said.

The city reported 1,145 COVID-19 cases on Monday, Turner said, but only 146 of those individuals were hospitalized. “The overwhelming majority are self-isolating at home and recovering at home,” he said.

Eleven people in Houston have died of COVID-19 as of today, Turner added. That is one additional death since yesterday.

The mayor thanked Flotek Industries for donating 1,240 gallons of hand sanitizer to the city, which will be distributed to first responders and to personnel at the city’s COVID-19 testing sites.

Houston City Council member Edward Pollard and the mayor reiterated plans announced earlier this week for a citywide moment of prayer on Thursday at noon.

“We all need to have faith,” said Pollard, who brought the idea to the mayor. “If we all come together, we’ll get through this.”

Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña said there were 165 firefighters in quarantine today, down from 220 yesterday. “We’ve had 20 firefighters test positive for COVID-19,” Peña said.

But burglaries of buildings as well as aggravated assaults and family violence/aggravated assaults have increased over the past few weeks, according to Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo.

“That speaks to people sheltering in place, people not giving themselves enough room, people just feeling the pressure of losing jobs and everything else,” Acevedo said.

Turner emphasized the importance of the next few weeks in flattening the curve and keeping as many people as possible free of COVID-19.

“April is the month that we all need to be very intentional,” Turner said. “Stay at home. Engage in social distancing. Wear your mask. Because if we do this together, we can break the back of this coronavirus.” — Maggie Galehouse

UPDATE | April 6, 2020, 4:46 p.m.: Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and city health officials delivered updates on the city’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic during the daily briefing.

Daily briefing highlights

As of today, 402 positive cases in Houston, totaling 1,145 casesNo new deaths; total number of deaths remains at 10Total number of City of Houston employees who have tested positive: 68Total Houston Fire Department personnel in quarantine: 220 (19 tested positive)Total Houston Police Department personnel in quarantine: 125 (24 tested positive)

“I want to stress that the month of April is going to be a very critical time, not just for our city, but quite frankly, for our country, as well,” Turner said during the press conference this afternoon at Houston City Hall. “The health experts tell us they expect to see the number of positive cases and, sadly, the number of deaths rise in the next seven to 10 days. April is our month to do everything we can to flatten the curve, so we are going to have to be very, very intentional about what we intend to do … in the month.”

As of today, there are 402 positive cases for the City of Houston, bringing the total number of cases to 1,145. However, Turner emphasized that the increase is not cause for alarm; approximately two-thirds of the cases are results they are receiving from tests that date back to mid-March.

“While it is frustrating for us to see these sudden jumps in the numbers, we need to pay attention to what the numbers mean overall,” said David Persse, M.D., the city’s health authority.

Turner was happy to report that there are no new deaths in the 402 cases. The total number of deaths remains at 10.

“That’s 10 too many, but when you compare that to the well over 9,600 people who have lost their lives across the United States … that’s good news, even though it’s 10 too many,” the mayor said.

In order to keep those numbers from swelling, Turner and Persse urged people to continue practicing social distancing and to wear masks and face coverings in public.

The surgical masks you wear are not designed to protect you, Persse said. They’re designed to protect the people round you.

Persse pointed to the reproduction number that quantifies the intensity of an infectious disease, referenced in public health as R0 (pronounced “R naught”).

“The larger the number, the more easily the infection is spread,” he said. “With the seasonal flu, it’s about 1.1. We see how much the seasonal flu spreads across the United States. With this virus, it appears to be about 2.4 to 2.5, with some estimates have it at as high as 3.”

One person can infect 2.5 people in five days. Each of those 2.5 people can then spread the virus to 2.5 other people. As this chain reaction continues, one person can infect 406 other individuals at the end of 30 days. However, people can reduce those numbers from 406 to 30 simply by practicing social distancing, Persse said.

“The impact of social distancing cannot be understated,” he added. “It is vitally important that everyone understand that and we wear masks. That’s what’s going to get us through this.”

While hospitals across the nation are struggling with intensive care unit overcrowding and ventilator shortages, Turner announced that Houston hospitals are still able to handle the load.

“The single objective is to flatten the curve and slow the progression so that our health care delivery system is not overwhelmed,” he said. “As of today, we are achieving that objective. Ideally, what we are seeking to do is not just to achieve that objective today, but every day in the month of April as we move forward.”

In addition, Turner announced earlier this morning a new joint initiative with Collaborative for Children and Workforce Solutions that will help provide child care support for at least 3,500 children of essential workers in Houston and Harris County.

The website, findchildcarenow.org, will serve as a resource for essential workers in the city and county to locate child care availabilities and apply for financial assistance via Workforce Solutions on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“On any given day, finding quality child care is critically important for parents who work outside the home, and today this issue is further complicated by the fact that many of our most reliable systems of child care—from local public schools to child care centers—are challenged by COVID-19 closures and a great deal of uncertainty,” Turner said. “In response to this unique challenge, the City of Houston Mayor’s Office, including the Office of Resilience and Office of Education, partnered with the Houston Endowment and Harris County Judge’s Office to develop a child care solution for essential workers during this emergency.” — Shanley Pierce

UPDATE | April 3, 2020, 6:45 p.m.: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends cloth face coverings as a voluntary way to prevent the spread of COVID-19, President Trump announced during a news conference today.

The advisory is not for surgical or medical grade masks—which must be saved for medical professionals—but for items such as bandannas or scarves to protect faces. Previously, the CDC recommended masks only for health care personnel and those infected with the virus.

In a news conference at Houston City Hall on Friday afternoon, Mayor Sylvester Turner appealed for unopened personal protective equipment (PPE) donations during a collection on Wednesday, April 8 from noon to 3 p.m. at Minute Maid Park. Businesses and individuals who have coveralls, masks, gowns, hand sanitizer, alcohol or gloves are asked to contribute. A complete list of priority items can be found here. Those unable to bring items during the collection period on Wednesday can deliver PPE to Project C.U.R.E.’s Houston location at 8303 Kempwood Drive.

The drive is part of a partnership with the Astros Foundation, Cheniere Energy and Project C.U.R.E., a Colorado-based nonprofit that collects and distributes recovered medical tools and equipment to underserved areas worldwide. The organization has focused its efforts domestically during the COVID-19 crisis.

“Look in your storage rooms,” said Janet Thomason, Project C.U.R.E.’s director of national procurement, who added that there are many hobbyists who may have the requested items. “We are looking for full boxes to go into the community. We are looking at industries, paint shops, production facilities—any of those businesses. They need to think: What do we have? … We can also use coveralls. We are looking for anything that will help protect these first responders.”

For those without PPE who would like to donate money, Cheniere will match the first $50,000 in financial contributions, President and CEO Jack Fusco said.

The Houston Fire Department, which includes paramedics and other emergency medical personnel, burns through about 10,000 units of PPE every day, Turner said, in addition to the thousands of items used daily by Houston police and Houston Health Department officials who are working at city testing sites.

“Now, we are at the point of assuming that everyone we come in contact with … has COVID-19. We have to assume that for the safety of our employees,” the mayor said, adding that a dashboard detailing local supplies will be released next week.

The current supply includes about 200,000 N95 masks, approximately 40,000 gowns, roughly 2 million pairs of gloves used by fire, police and health workers —“but we go through those at a very, very rapid rate”—as well as about 200 touch-free thermometers, 3,000 to 4,000 pairs of goggles and about 700 face shields, Turner said.

“We anticipate we are going to be in this battle for the next couple of months and you don’t want to get down to within a week or two [of supplies],” the mayor said. “Ideally, for the N95 masks … we would like to be well over a million for a city of this size. We are the fourth-largest city. … 500,000 are scheduled to come in next week, but we really need to maintain a stockpile of 1 million.”

Deaths in the city have increased by two, including a man with underlying conditions in his 40s who died on March 27—the youngest city resident to perish with a COVID-19 diagnosis—bringing the city’s tally to eight. A woman in her 60s who died on April 1 also had underlying conditions. Fatality reports are delayed because some virus infections are confirmed after a patient has died.

The city is now reporting 587 COVID-19 cases.

As of Friday, the nation exceeded 7,000 deaths, more than 270,000 reported cases nationwide and more than 5,000 cases identified in Texas with at least 90 deaths. Also Friday, Harris County reported its fifth death—a woman between 80 and 90 with underlying health conditions. Harris County is now reporting 519 cases. — Cindy George

UPDATE | April 2, 2020, 3:45 p.m.: The disease peak in Houston is estimated to hit in another month around May 2 “based on the medical professionals’ opinions … somewhere in the first part of May,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a Thursday afternoon news conference.

That means the Houston area has at least four more weeks of social distancing based on public health projections. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s latest stay home/work safe order for cities, including Houston, and unincorporated areas expires on April 30.

Turner added that the city’s health care delivery system currently can handle the patients who need hospital care.

The city has had two more COVID-19 fatalities, both older residents with underlying health conditions who died on March 31, which brings Houston’s tally to six.

“Two deaths within 24 hours. We’ve not had that happen before. This is not the trend that we’re looking for,” David Persse, M.D., the city’s health authority, said during a news conference with the mayor at Delmar Stadium in northwest Houston—the city’s second drive-through testing site. “Each and every one of these deaths is potentially preventable if people would social distance, wash their hands and do all those other things that we talk about. These are unprecedented times. We can get through this together.”

The city now has 506 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

George Buenik, Houston’s director of public safety and homeland security, made a special appeal for personal protective equipment or PPE “to keep our frontline, first responders safe,” he said.

Those who can donate masks, gowns, gloves, face shields and other PPE, should email donations@houstonemergency.org to alert the city about availability.

This week, the mayor instructed city parks and recreation department workers to remove nearly 500 rims from public basketball backboards and have dispatched staff to parks “to ensure that people are complying with the social distancing,” he said. “That is the singular goal: To slow the progression of this virus.” — Cindy George

UPDATE | April 2, 2020, 1 p.m.: As of Thursday morning, the nation exceeded 5,700 deaths, more than 234,000 reported cases nationwide and more than 4,600 cases identified in Texas with at least 70 deaths. Increased local testing brought Houston to 458 cases and Harris County’s most recent tally to 389 cases. Municipalities are also reporting dozens of recovered patients.

Harris County has reported two deaths and there are four Houston fatalities.

The Astros Foundation has donated $400,000 to support TMC hospitals and announced a partnership with Crane Worldwide Logistics—a global supply chain business founded by Astros owner Jim Crane—to distribute medical supplies, coronavirus test swabs and personal protective equipment (PPE) locally. The freight company delivered 100,000 COVID-19 test swabs to area hospitals on Wednesday and will provide PPE and more swabs in the next 10 days. — Cindy George

UPDATE | March 31, 2020, 4:30 p.m.: Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo extended the March 24 stay-at-home, work safe order through April 30 for all unincorporated area and all cities in the county including Houston.

Also today, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order implementing “essential services and activities protocols” statewide.

“The protocols direct all Texans to minimize non-essential gatherings and in-person contact with people who are not in the same household. The Governor’s Executive Order renews and amends his previous order enforcing federal social distancing guidelines for COVID-19, including closing schools and instructing Texans to avoid eating or drinking at bars and restaurants,” a statement said.

The governor’s order includes exceptions for essential services including health care, grocery stores, banking and financial services, utilities, childcare for essential service employees and government services.

Texas Health and Human Services has launched a 24/7 statewide mental health support line, which can be dialed toll-free at 833-986-1919, to help Texans experiencing anxiety, stress or emotional challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Click here for more information.

The Houston Health Department reported the city’s fourth death. The patient was a man in his 70s with underlying health conditions. The city also announced 68 new cases on Tuesday, bring Houston’s total to 377. — Cindy George

UPDATE | March 31, 2020, 10:30 a.m.: As the nation exceeds 3,000 reported COVID-19 deaths, tighter restrictions on social distancing beyond the current stay-at-home order are anticipated this week in Harris County.

Also this week, the Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center is hosting an emergency blood drive at The Health Museum, 1515 Hermann Drive, to address the critical shortage of donations caused by the pandemic. The daily drive beginning Tuesday, March 31, 2020 and ending Friday, April 3, 2020 is by appointment only from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Donors should visit http://www.giveblood.org/the-health-museum/ to make an appointment. All registrants will receive free passes to The Health Museum.

The Gulf Coast Regional Blood Center needs 800 to 1,000 daily donations to sufficiently provide blood and blood products to 170 hospitals in the region.

University of Houston researchers are some of the latest donors of personal protective equipment (PPE) to assist frontline health care workers.

David Brammer, D.V.M., executive director and chief veterinarian of Animal Care Operations, contributed 70 full-body coveralls, which offer superior protection against a variety of hazards including body fluids. His department donated two powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs), which are helmet-like devices used to safeguard against contaminated air. There are plans to donate even more PPE to Texas Medical Center institutions as weekly shipments arrive. Staff in Brammer’s department, who promote and support breakthrough biomedical research at UH, volunteered to modify processes to conserve the current supply of protective coveralls.

UH physics professor Seamus Curran, Ph.D., founder of Integricote, offered personal protective equipment from his lab to the City of Houston. Integricote is a nanotech company based at the University’s Technology Bridge, which produces coatings and sealers for fabrics, glass, tarps, wood and masonry.  His lab donated 27 body suits, 73 N95 masks and 200 pairs of gloves to the Houston Health Foundation, the Houston Health Department’s nonprofit arm which is coordinating the city’s effort to secure PPE.

Researchers in the Center for Research Computing’s Spatial Studies Lab at Rice University have created an interactive dashboard and map reporting all COVID-19 cases across Texas using public health data. Visit coronavirusintexas.org for cases by county, the number of people tested across the state and the current hospital bed utilization rate as well as the numbers of staffed beds and intensive care beds in Texas hospitals. The data automatically updates daily.

As of Tuesday morning, there are more than 163,000 reported cases nationwide and nearly 3,000 cases identified in Texas. A weekend jump because of increased local testing brought Houston to 309 cases and Harris County’s most recent tally to 254 cases. Municipalities are also reporting dozens of recovered patients.

Harris County has reported two deaths and all three Houston fatalities were senior women with underlying health conditions. — Cindy George

UPDATE | March 30, 2020, 10:25 a.m.: AARP Texas has called on Governor Greg Abbott to strengthen health coverage during the COVID-19 crisis by seeking a temporary expansion of Medicaid, the joint federal-state program that offers health coverage to some low-income individuals.

The temporary expansion would waive the rules that ordinarily apply to the program and provide coverage to poor Texans who are not eligible for subsidies from the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Texas, one of the states that has not expanded Medicaid since the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act, has the highest percentage of uninsured adults in the country.

“Health coverage will encourage timely testing for COVID-19, provide much-needed treatment and provide financial stability to families struggling with lost earnings,” wrote AARP Texas Director Tina Tran in a letter to Abbott dated March 27, 2020. “As Texas seeks to do all it can to protect the public’s health during this pandemic, ensuring that all Texans have access to health care is paramount.”

The AARP Texas letter to Governor Abbott can be found here: LETTER TO GOVERNOR ABBOTT 032720. —Maggie Galehouse

UPDATE | March 27, 2020, 8:30 p.m.: Might you have COVID-19? Now, to find out, there’s an app for that.

Apple, Inc. with the White House Coronavirus Task Force and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—released a free smartphone application and website today that can help people determine if they are sick enough to seek treatment for COVID-19.

The digital tool guides users through a series of questions about their health and exposure then “provides CDC recommendations on next steps including guidance on social distancing and self-isolating, how to closely monitor symptoms, recommendations on testing and when to contact a medical provider,” a CDC statement said.

iPhone users can download the app from Apple’s App Store.

According to Apple, customers across the United States may also ask Siri, “How do I know if I have coronavirus?” to access guidance and resources from the CDC as well as from a curated collection of telehealth apps available in the App Store.

As of Friday evening, there are more than 100,000-plus cases nationwide—“a grim milestone” exceeding China and Italy, as noted in The New York Times—with more than 1,700 in Texas, 160 in Harris County and 69 confirmed positives in Houston.

There have been more than 1,500 deaths nationwide with 23 COVID-19 deaths in Texas, one in Harris County and one in Houston. — Cindy George

UPDATE | March 26, 2020, 5:30 p.m.: Houston’s first COVID-19 death, escalating cases, philanthropy and locally made personal protective equipment led the way for pandemic news today in Houston and Harris County.

There have been more than 1,000 deaths nationwide, a benchmark this week, including 18 in Texas and one in Harris County. Houston reported its first COVID-19 death on Thursday.

There are 81,000-plus cases in the United States—now exceeding any country in the world. There are more than 1,300 in Texas, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, as well as 135 cases in Harris County and 68 confirmed positives in Houston.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced the creation of a Greater Houston COVID-19 Recovery Fund to help community members and families struggling from the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic. The fund is a joint effort between United Way of Greater Houston and the Greater Houston Community Foundation. A link to the fund can be accessed at readyharris.org and more information can be found at www.greaterhoustonrecovery.org. The Houston Endowment has contributed $1 million to the fund and will also match $1 for every $4 raised up to $1 million. Additionally, the Wells Fargo Foundation gave $150,000, and JPMorgan Chase & Co. and the Houston Texans Foundation each gave $100,000.

Hidalgo also announced that she has signed a waiver that would allow Houston Community College, with the nonprofit TX/RX Labs, to manufacture protective shields with their 3D printers to address the shortage of personal protective equipment in the health care sector. The team is currently working on a prototype and once fully operational, anticipate producing 30,000 shields a day.

Harris County Public Health (HCPH) Executive Director Umair Shah, M.D., MPH, estimated that approximately 1,700 individuals have been tested in the Houston area since Monday.

During a subsequent news conference, Mayor Sylvester Turner provided an update on the City of Houston’s COVID-19 test site and the availability of supplies to continue testing. The city received a small shipment from FEMA today, he said, which will allow continued COVID-19 testing through Saturday—which was not guaranteed as of yesterday. However, supplies are running short which could delay future testing. City officials expect a larger shipment in the next few days, which would include personal protective equipment as well as medicine and medical supplies.

“We expect the numbers to rise, the more testing we do,” Turner said. “The value … is to get a better sense of who is out there with COVID-19. We can better trace and attempt to isolate or place people in quarantine.”

Turner also noted that only one of the city’s two testing centers is operating because of limited resources. The city is testing medical professionals and first responders, people 65 and older with symptoms and people of any age with chronic illnesses.

The mayor also announced that he is pulling $5 million from the city’s economic stabilization fund to purchase supplies when they are available and to lease two hotels for employees who may have to be quarantined and cannot go home as well as for the homeless population and others.

The city also has suspended disconnections of water and power to individuals who have lost their jobs during the COVID-19 emergency at least through the end of April. The mayor was joined by local businessman Farouk Shami to accept a donation of more than 15,000 bottles of hand sanitizer valued at approximately $1 million. Turner said the alcohol-based products will benefit individuals in the homeless population as well as health care workers and other professionals “working on the front line” to combat COVID-19.

David Persse, M.D., Houston’s public health authority, announced the city’s first COVID-19 death. The patient was a woman in her 60s with underlying health conditions.

Both Turner and Hidalgo reiterated the importance of social distancing to slow the spread of the disease and to preserve medical resources. — Alexandra Becker

UPDATE | March 26, 2020, 10 a.m.: The Houston Health Department announced 11 new COVID-19 cases on Weds., March 25, and another two cases on March 26, bringing the city total to 68.

Harris County Public Health (HCPH) reported 40 new cases of COVID-19 on March 25, which brings the total to 119 positive cases. These new cases do not include those within the City of Houston. HCPH is also confirming that 13 county patients have recovered. — Maggie Galehouse

UPDATE | March 25, 2020, 10 a.m.: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is investigating a treatment for COVID-19 that uses plasma collected from recovered COVID-19 patients to treat those who are still fighting the disease and experiencing the most severe symptoms.

Using plasma that has been harvested from a recovered patient and purified before being used to treat a current patient is a therapy that dates back more than a century. This so-called “convalescent plasma” was used to treat the sick during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

“It is possible that convalescent plasma that contains antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) might be effective against the infection,” said a statement released by the FDA on March 24. “Use of convalescent plasma has been studied in outbreaks of other respiratory infections, including the 2009-2010 H1N1 influenza virus pandemic, 2003 SARS-CoV-1 epidemic, and the 2012 MERS-CoV epidemic.”

Because of the immediate global health threat, the FDA is making COVID-19 convalescent plasma available for use in patients who are experiencing serious or immediately life-threatening infections through the process of single patient emergency Investigational New Drug Applications (eINDs). This process allows the use of an investigational drug for the treatment of an individual patient by a licensed physician upon FDA authorization.

In the meantime, the FDA will keep working with the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to create master protocols to be used by investigators to help coordinate the collection and use of COVID-19 convalescent plasma. — Maggie Galehouse

UPDATE | March 24, 2020, 4 p.m.: The Houston Health Department announced 31 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday as a result of batched reports received from commercial laboratories. This brings the city’s number of confirmed positives to 55.

The agency also has begun to start reporting on those who have recovered, including one woman today and two patients on Monday.

As of Tuesday morning, there are 49,000-plus cases nationwide and more than 400 in Texas, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, as well as 79 cases in Harris County and 55 confirmed positives in Houston. Deaths nationally have exceeded 600 with nine in Texas and one in Harris County.

In a joint letter, the nation’s hospitals, physicians and nurses urged the American public to stay home.

“We are honored to serve and put our lives on the front line to protect and save as many lives as possible. But we need your help. Physical distancing and staying at home are the key to slowing the spread of 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) to give physicians, nurses and everyone on the front lines a fighting chance at having the equipment, time and resources necessary to take on this immense challenge. Those contracting COVID-19 are your family, friends, and loved ones,” the letter from the American Hospital Association, the American Medical Association and the American Nurses Association said.

“That’s why we’re urging the public to #StayHome as we reach the critical stages of our national response to COVID-19. Of course, those with urgent medical needs, including pregnant women, should seek care as needed. Everyone else should #StayHome.” — Cindy George

UPDATE | March 24, 2020, 10:48 a.m.: Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced a stay-at-home order Tuesday morning for all cities in within the county to mitigate the further spread of COVID-19.

“After consulting with these folks, we’re taking another step to prevent the spread of coronavirus,” Hidalgo said during the news conference. “When we put out the bar and restaurant order with Mayor [Sylvester] Turner a few days ago, we said that if we err, we would err on the side of caution. In that spirit, we are taking steps to prioritize human life, so I’m issuing a Stay Home Work Safe order for Harris County, walking in lockstep with Mayor Turner and proud of the partnership that we have across our region.”

The Stay Home Work Safe order applies throughout Harris County, including unincorporated areas and all included cities, and will go into effect at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday through April 3. Hidalgo said she and local officials will revisit the order as necessary.

The order requires people to remain at home, except to go to the grocery store, to pick up food or to go to work at essential businesses.

The federal government’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency guidelines classifies the following 16 sectors as essential:

CommunicationsChemicalCritical ManufacturingCommercial FacilitiesDamsDefense Industrial BaseEmergency ServicesEnergyFinancialFood & AgricultureGovernment FacilitiesHealth care & Public HealthInformation TechnologyNuclear Reactors, Materials and WasteTransportation SystemsWater

While playgrounds and basketball courts will be closed to prevent close contact, parks will remain open to the public. People still will be able to go for walks and exercise outdoors while maintaining a safe, six-foot distance from others—which is a hallmark of social distancing.

Hidalgo said violators can face a fine of $1,000 or up to 180 days in jail.

The Stay Home Work Safe order is not a shelter-in-place mandate, which is a term Turner said is reserved for plant explosions, shootings or hurricanes.

“We are in a health care crisis. In order not to prolong this crisis, in order to blunt the progression of this virus, we both recognize that steps need to be taken … so that we are not in the situation longer than we need to be,” Turner added. “The best time to take the steps that are being put forth is right now. We don’t have the luxury of waiting two weeks down the road.” — Shanley Pierce

UPDATE | March 23, 2020, 11 a.m.: Harris County has opened two testing sites with guidelines for call-ahead screening. — Cindy George

UPDATE | March 23, 2020, 10 a.m.: More than 500 high-risk, symptomatic people have been tested at the free, drive-through center that was opened Friday by the Houston Health Department and Texas Medical Center partner institutions as the city’s first community-based testing site. Services continue today for these people with symptoms: medical professionals, first responders, seniors 65 and older and persons of any age chronic illnesses. Cough, difficulty breathing and fever are the common COVID-19 symptoms. People meeting the criteria must call the Houston Health Department’s COVID-19 call center at 832-393-4220 between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. to get screened. Those approved for testing will receive a unique identification code and instructions for visiting the drive-through site.

Starting today, public transit is free in Houston. METRO buses and light rail have new procedures to provide social distance for passengers and employees. To facilitate movement in the Texas Medical Center, METRO has added the TMC Red Shuttle with stops in five areas: Smithlands Station, Dryden/TMC Station, Fannin and John Freeman, John Freeman and Bertner as well as Bertner and Bates.

As of Monday morning, there are 33,000-plus cases nationwide and more than 350 in Texas, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, as well as 51 cases in Harris County and 23 confirmed positives in Houston. Deaths nationally have exceeded 428 with eight in Texas and one in Harris County.

A new study from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health identifies where the local patients live who are already sick enough to strain local hospitals if infected. The analysis found that areas of Harris County with the highest percentage of residents with three or more risk factors for hospitalization include: East Little York-Settegast, Deer Park-Channelview, Downtown-East End, South Acres Homes-Northline and Kingwood-Lake Houston.

Also, to preserve personnel and personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves, TMC hospitals have suspended elective surgeries.

Houston is not shut down, despite circulating rumors, Mayor Sylvester Turner has emphasized. Neither is Harris County or the state of Texas. On Sunday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that he will not issue a statewide shelter-in-place order now because most of state’s 254 counties have not reported any COVID-19 cases. The only officials who can authorize lockdowns are Abbott for Texas, County Judge Lina Hidalgo for Harris County and Turner for the city.

Also on Sunday, the governor announced plans to mobilize the National Guard to assist with testing and to allow hospitals to expand their capacity. He also warned of dire medical equipment shortages. — Cindy George

UPDATE | March 20, 2020, 2:45 p.m.: The first of four free COVID-19 drive-thru testing sites for high-risk individuals in Houston and Harris County opened Friday at Butler Stadium in southwest Houston.

These sites are the result of a public-private partnership that includes the Texas Medical Center, Houston Methodist, Memorial Hermann Health System, CHI-St Luke’s Health and HCA Houston Healthcare.

Friday’s testing was open to specific people: paramedics, police officers, firefighters, doctors, nurses and other first responders and individuals on the front lines of health care. The city hoped to test 160 people.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner assures Houstonians that “the city is not shutting down,” rather, it is “being strategic, making meaningful, methodical decisions.” The mayor and city health leaders spoke at a press conference on Friday, March 20, 2020.

On Saturday, March 21, the Butler Stadium testing center will open to people age 65 and older with symptoms, including fever. Starting Sunday, the site will be open to anyone deemed high risk.

The three additional testing sites will open in the coming days and the city will announce an online and phone-based screening process to help determine who will be seen at them. The sites will only accept people with a unique identification code obtained through the screening process.

“You cannot just show up,” Persse said.

In hopes of preventing people from showing up and being turned away because they did not complete the screening process, local health departments are not identifying the locations of the additional testing sites.

In the meantime, health leaders continue to work together on how to manage the coronavirus pandemic.

The TMC’s McKeon said he has been meeting with medical center CEOs for several weeks.

Texas Medical Center President and CEO Bill McKeon speaks at a city press conference on March 20, 2020,  flanked by Baylor College of Medicine President and CEO Paul Klotman, M.D., and Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center President Doug Lawson, Ph.D.

“Every morning starts at 7 a.m.,” McKeon said. “All of the CEOs come together and meet on COVID-19. It has been a tight alliance of all of us, sharing best practices and ideas, sharing the cases and how we’re approaching them and actually planning for the future. … Our incredible institutions have been ramping up their own labs … and then the national labs are also scaling up in numbers that almost double every week.”

Hospitals in the medical center are also collaborating on research, said Baylor College of Medicine President and CEO Paul Klotman, M.D.

“We’re figuring out new ways to test and treat this disease,” Klotman said. — Maggie Galehouse

UPDATE | March 19, 2020, 5:45 p.m.: At 7 p.m. CT, Gov. Greg Abbott is hosting a televised virtual town hall with leaders from the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), the Texas Division of Emergency Management and the Texas Education Agency to answer questions and discuss the state’s efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. In the Houston area, the broadcast will air on KIAH-TV (CW). Click here for the live feed.

Four free testing sites will open soon in Houston and Harris County—two in each jurisdiction—in coordination with FEMA.

The City of Houston will open its first free testing site at Butler Stadium on Friday for high-risk individuals who have symptoms and have completed a screening process.

“We do not have enough personal protective equipment … to test everyone, so the focus tomorrow will be on first responders and health care workers,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said Thursday during a news conference that included millennials in a nod to new CDC guidance warning about the impact of the virus on young adults. Seniors and those with chronic health conditions still are considered most at risk.

The nation’s known cases plowed past 10,000 Thursday and at least 172 people have died. DSHS reports 143 cases among 2,335 people tested in Texas.

Harris County reported its first COVID-19 death today, a man in the 80 to 90 age range with underlying health conditions who resided in a nursing home in the county’s northwest quadrant. The county now has 24 cases including five new cases on Thursday. They are:

Female, NW Harris County, age 40-50, confirmed (contact with a positive COVID-19 individual)Male, NW Harris County, age 50-60, confirmed (travel-related)Female, SE Harris County, age 40-50, confirmed (travel-related)Female, NW Harris County, age 60-70, confirmed (travel-related)Female, NW Harris County, age 20-30, confirmed (travel-related)

Houston is up to 11 cases, including one announced today. The hospitalized patient, a woman in the 50 to 60 age range, has no known travel or exposure history and is likely a case of community spread.

Evictions have been halted in Harris County until at least the end of March, County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced Thursday.

“We don’t want people out on the street simply because they’re out of a job because of the coronavirus,” she said.

The Census is critical to public health, including preparedness for pandemics such as COVID-19. On Wednesday, the U.S. Census Bureau suspended field operations for the two weeks before Census Day, which is April 1. — Cindy George

UPDATE | March 19, 2020, 1:25 p.m.: Houston-area residents waited for free COVID-19 evaluations and tests at United Memorial Medical Center, 510 West Tidwell Rd., on Thursday. Drive-thru services were set up in the parking lot of the facility.

A medical worker evaluates an individual at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston on Thursday, March 19, 2020.

Evaluations and testing began at 10 a.m. and, by 10:30 a.m., a line of cars wrapped around the block and snaked all the way up Yale Street.

One set of tents was set up for evaluations. Drivers and passengers spoke to medical professionals from their cars to determine whether or not they had symptoms of COVID-19, the disease associated with the new strain of coronavirus identified in China in December 2019.

People lined up in their cars for COVID-19 evaluations and testing at United Memorial Medical Center.

Individuals who needed testing after their evaluations proceeded to another set of tents and were swabbed from their vehicles.

Test results should be available within 24 hours.

“This is a serious human crisis,” U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said in a news conference Wednesday, praising the work of United Memorial Medical Center leaders as well as city and county officials who helped launch the testing site.

President Trump signed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act on Wednesday, which provides paid sick leave and free coronavirus testing, expands food assistance and unemployment benefits, and requires employers to provide additional protections for health care workers.

The next challenge, Jackson Lee said, is to encourage testing manufacturers to produce more COVID-19 tests and push them into local cities and counties. — Maggie Galehouse and Cody Duty

UPDATE | March 19, 2020, 1:03 p.m.: Gov. Greg Abbott announced a statewide executive order today banning gatherings of 10 or more people, shutting down dine-in services at all restaurants and bars, closing gyms and prohibiting non-essential visitation to nursing homes.

The executive order takes effect Friday, March 20, and extends through Friday, April 3, but it may continue depending on how the situation evolves.

“Working together, we must defeat COVID-19 with the only tool that we have available to us. We must strangle its expansion by reducing the ways that we are currently transmitting it,” Abbott said during a news conference held at the State Capitol Thursday afternoon. “We are doing this now, today, so that we can get back to business as usual more quickly.”

The executive order is not a shelter in place mandate, Abbott clarified. While people are encouraged to stay home and practice social distancing, the order does not prohibit people from going to parks or performing essential activities, such as visiting banks or grocery shopping.

Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner John Hellerstedt insisted that Texas needs a “unified, robust response to contain COVID-19.” Earlier today, Hellerstedt declared a public health disaster in Texas. The last statewide public health declaration in Texas happened in 1901. — Shanley Pierce

UPDATE | March 18, 2020, 5:30 p.m.: The Houston Health Department announced five additional positive COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, bringing the city’s total to 10.

The new cases are:

Male | Age 50-60 | No known travel | HospitalizedMale | Age 70-80 | Travel to New York | Home RecoveringMale | Age 50-60 | Travel to Spain | Home RecoveringFemale | Age 20-30 | Travel to Mexico | HospitalizedMale | Age 60-70 | No known travel | Hospitalized

The previous positive cases are:

Male | Age 60-70 | Travel to Egypt | Home RecoveringFemale | Age 60-70 | Travel to Egypt | Home RecoveringFemale | Age 15-25 | Travel from New York | RecoveringFemale | Age 70-80 | Travel to Egypt | Home RecoveringMale | Age 50-60 | Travel to Panama | Hospitalized

The upswing in positive cases was predicted as testing becomes increasingly available.

The city health department’s investigations will identify potential contacts of the positive patients as well as provide close contacts guidance about the virus and monitor them for symptoms, a news release said.

More intense focus on social distancing has extended school closures in the Houston area. For instance, the Houston Independent School District—the largest in Texas with 210,000 students—will remain shut down through April 10 and is expected to reopen on April 13.

Also Wednesday, the U.S. Senate approved the Family First Coronavirus Response Act, which was passed by the House. The bill includes free coronavirus testing, two weeks of paid sick leave, up to three months of paid family and medical leave, expanded unemployment benefits for furloughed workers, food assistance and increased federal funds for Medicaid. President Trump is expected to sign the legislation. — Cindy George

UPDATE | March 18, 2020, 8:15 a.m.: We are now the United States of Coronavirus with cases in all 50 states, Washington, D.C. and three U.S. territories. On Tuesday evening, West Virginia became the last state to report its first COVID-19 infection.

Texas reported its second coronavirus death on Tuesday after confirming test results. The 77-year-old man from Arlington had double pneumonia and died in quarantine on Sunday.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott

Also on Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott activated the Texas National Guard. Troops are ready to deploy for tasks such as assisting at drive-through testing sites.

The governor also has waived certain state regulations for telemedicine care “to help doctors across Texas continue to treat their patients while mitigating the spread of COVID-19,” a news release said. “The suspensions and emergency rule will work together to allow telemedicine visits for patients with state-regulated plans to be paid the same as in-office visits for insurance purposes.” — Cindy George

UPDATE | March 17, 2020, 3 p.m.: The first Texas death related to COVID-19 has been reported in Matagorda County, which is about 90 miles southwest of Houston. The patient was a man in his 90s, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). The agency’s coronavirus update reported Tuesday afternoon that there have been 64 cases statewide among 1,268 tested.

Harris Health System has closed all eligibility sites to in-person encounters, but two will continue to accept mailed and delivered applications. The centers process financial assistance applications for people seeking care in the county’s public safety-net system. A statement released Tuesday said three centers are closed until further notice: Acres Home Eligibility Center, 818 Ringold Street in Houston; East Mount Houston Eligibility Center, 11737-B Eastex Freeway in Houston; and Strawberry Health Center, 925 E. Shaw Road in Pasadena.

Two locations will process mailed and dropped-off applications and documents. They are the Lois J. Moore Eligibility Center, 8901-B Boone Road in Houston, and the Southeast Eligibility Center, 3550-A Swingle Road in Houston.

Tuesday was the first day of new restrictions on gathering in Harris County, which turned restaurants into delivery, takeout and drive-through establishments and closed bars and clubs. Meanwhile, grocery stores and supermarkets remained busy with customers. — Cindy George

UPDATE | March 16, 2020, 5:30 p.m.: Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced new restrictions on gathering in eating and drinking establishments in the county, its unincorporated area and all cities within, including Houston.

Restaurants must offer only delivery, takeout and drive-through service; all bars and clubs must close; and “unless you need to go out, stay home and stay away from crowds,” the county judge said.

“We are at a pivotal point right now,” Hildago said, noting that choosing to go out in groups or to stay at home “will determine whether people live or die.”

There are at least 69 cases of COVID-19 in Texas. People in all five major urban areas of the state have tested positive. There are cases stemming from international travel and community spread.

During an earlier news conference on Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott said there will be an “exponential” rise in the number of coronavirus cases statewide with increased testing capability. So far, more than 200 people have been tested in Texas.

“By the end of this week, testing for the new coronavirus in Texas is expected to ramp up to 10,000 tests weekly,” Abbott said, according to a Texas Tribune report.

As of Monday, more than 300 Texans are being monitored and could test positive, the governor added.

UPDATE | March 16, 2020, 3:15 p.m.: President Trump urged the public to avoid social gatherings with groups of more than 10 people for the next 15 days as part of new national guidelines to reduce the spread of COVID-19. As part of the public health strategy, Americans also are advised to “avoid eating and drinking at bars, restaurants and food courts; going on shopping trips and making social visits; and visiting nursing homes and retirement or long-term care facilities,” Politico reported.

The president said the restrictions could last until the summer, according to USA Today.

“The White House gave the country a 15-day window to flatten the soaring curve of infection, but some disease modelers see a trajectory that could create a crisis that would start to overwhelm the U.S. health care system in about 10 days,” the Politico story added.

The first human trial for a COVID-19 vaccine started today and is expected to last at a least a year, Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, confirmed in today’s coronavirus task force news briefing at the White House. The study was “launched in record speed,” Fauci said. — Cindy George

UPDATE | March 16, 2020, 1 p.m.: As coronavirus concerns intensify and “social distancing” becomes a reality, public spaces are shutting down. The Houston Zoo and all Houston Public Library locations are closed. Most Houston-area schools are not in session and Gov. Greg Abbott has waived state standardized testing requirements for the 2019-2020 school year. Drive-through coronavirus testing has started in San Antonio and Dallas. Also, the governor has fast-tracked licensing for out-of-state medical professionals including physicians, physician assistants, certain retired physicians and nurses under a disaster emergency licensing rule.

Because of the novel coronavirus COVID-19, the Houston Zoo is closed until April 3, 2020. (Photo: Cody Duty)

Despite national, state and local emergency declarations, Abbott has declined to shut down Texas bars and restaurants.

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) requested and received personal protective equipment from the Strategic National Stockpile. Items include surgical masks, respirators, face shields, surgical gowns and gloves.

“DSHS is distributing the medical supplies to hospitals and health care providers across the state through the state’s Hospital Preparedness Program,” a news release said. “These supplies will support Texas’ health care workers as they work to respond to and mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in Texas.”

Meanwhile, consumers are stripping store shelves of essentials, particularly paper towels, bathroom tissue and cleaning supplies. Houston Mayor Sylvester was joined by retail leaders from HEB, Kroger and Randalls for a Monday news conference to assure residents that there is no shortage of goods or supply chain issues as well as to discourage panic buying and hoarding. — Cindy George

UPDATE | March 15, 2020, 4:18 p.m.: The Houston Health Department announced a fifth case of COVID -19 in Houston.

The most recent presumptive positive case is reported to be a man between 50 and 60 years old with a history of international travel. He is currently in the hospital recovering and in good condition. — Shanley Pierce

UPDATE | March 13, 2020, 1:50 p.m.: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has declared a state of disaster in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“To ensure that the state of Texas and our cities and counties are fully capable to prepare and respond to COVID-19, I am at this moment declaring a state disaster for all counties in the state of Texas,” he said during a press conference at the State Capitol on Friday.

By declaring a state of disaster, Texas law gives Abbott the power to assume the position of “commander in chief of state agencies, boards, and commissions having emergency responsibilities.” The state of disaster will be in place for the next 30 days.

As part of his plan to mitigate the spread of the virus, Abbott said the state’s first state drive-through site with COVID-19 testing capabilities will open soon in San Antonio. Only first responders, health care workers, operators of critical infrastructure and certain high risk patients will be tested initially. Additional drive-through testing sites will also open in Houston, Dallas and Austin within the week.

According to Abbott, 220 Texans have been tested by either a state public lab or by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with another 75 additional state residents in the testing process.

Currently, Texas public health labs have the capacity to test 273 people per day, but with the new initiative to ramp up testing capabilities, the state and private labs will be able to test several thousand per week, the governor said.

Also, the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) is transitioning its six schools based in the Texas Medical Center to online learning starting Monday, March 16. The Cizik School of Nursing, McGovern Medical School, MD Anderson UTHealth Graduate School, School of Biomedical Informatics, School of Dentistry and School of Public Health will convene virtual classes until further notice, UTHealth President Giuseppe N. Colasurdo, M.D. announced Friday.

“This preventive measure will allow us to continue our educational mission, while doing our part to safeguard our community,” Colasurdo said in a statement.

Final plans will be communicated and posted as available on each school’s website. — Shanley Pierce and Cindy George

UPDATE | March 12, 2020, 1:46 p.m.: The Houston Health Department announced a third case of COVID-19 in the city Wednesday evening.

The case, a female between 15 to 25 years old who recently traveled to New York, was reported to be experiencing mild symptoms and is currently quarantined in her home.

Houston Health Department reported that the patient had attended the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo on March 8.

“She was not symptomatic during the Rodeo visit and there is a low risk to attendees,” a Houston Health Department statement said.

So far, there is one confirmed and two presumptive positive cases in the City of Houston. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that a woman in her 60s or 70s became infected with the coronavirus during a Nile River cruise in Egypt. A man in his 60s or 70s, who was also a passenger on the Egyptian cruise, tested presumptive positive in addition to this most recent presumptive positive case.

Yesterday, health officials announced a man in his 40s from Montgomery County tested presumptive positive for COVID-19. The man, who had not recently traveled, attended the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo BBQ cook-off on Feb. 28, indicating evidence of community spread of the coronavirus.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner signed into action yesterday a proclamation of Local State of Disaster Due to a Public Health Emergency, which includes the cancellation of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and other city-sponsored, produced and permitted events scheduled for March. — Shanley Pierce

UPDATE | March 12, 2020, 11:24 a.m.:  The Health Museum will livestream a coronavirus preparedness panel with experts from Baylor College of Medicine and The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB) on Saturday, March 14, from noon to 1 p.m. on its Facebook page.

This community discussion will feature three local experts on vaccines, infection and immunity: Peter J. Hotez, M.D., Ph.D., a physician-scientist who is dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor, director of the Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development and Texas Children’s Hospital Endowed Chair in Tropical Pediatrics; Scott C. Weaver, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity at UTMB; and Mike Mastrangelo, program director of Institutional Preparedness at UTMB. — Maggie Galehouse

UPDATE | March 11, 2020, 1:25 p.m.: Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced this afternoon that the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo has been canceled in response to increasing concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

By the end of today, Turner will sign an emergency health declaration for the City of Houston that will remain in place for seven days. The mayor and city officials will continue to assess the situation and, at the end of the seven days, the Houston City Council will decide whether or not to continue the emergency health declaration.

As part of that declaration, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo will shut down operations.

The decision—which came shortly after the World Health Organization declared that the novel coronavirus outbreak is now a “pandemic”—was not easily made. The recent confirmed case in Montgomery County proved there was evidence of community spread, Turner said, prompting health officials to take necessary action to mitigate further transmission.

“The health and safety of the people in our region is paramount,” the mayor said. “It is important for people to know that based upon the facts presented, we’ll make the necessary decision to keep everyone safe.”

The rodeo began on March 3 and was scheduled to end on March 22. However, growing fears of coronavirus transmission and the increasing number of local cases forced officials to shut it down early. Thousands had signed an online petition to end this year’s rodeo after the City of Austin canceled SXSW earlier this week.

“The rodeo is deeply saddened; however, the safety and well-being of our guests and our community is our top priority,” rodeo officials said in a statement. “The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo has been a fabric of this community since 1932. Having to close early is extremely difficult as guests, volunteers, exhibitors, rodeo athletes and entertainers look forward to the 20 days of the rodeo each year.”

There are currently 14 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Houston area.

“It is a very big step that the mayor and the judge are taking, but it is to save lives,” said David E. Persse, M.D., the health authority for the Houston Health Department. “If we are successful with not only the things that this community can do, what government can do, but what you can do in terms of social distancing, washing your hands, covering your cough, not going to work when ill—when we do those things together, we can slow down the spread of the virus through our community.”

Other events produced, co-sponsored and permitted in Houston for the month of March—including the Tour de Houston and the city’s annual Capital Improvement Program Town Hall meetings—are being canceled or rescheduled.

“When we are confronted with the facts, the medical advice and the science, we will not hesitate to act,” Turner said. “For those of us who are Texans through and through from our region, you know just how much we love the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. This decision has not come easily.” — Shanley Pierce

UPDATE | March 11, 2020, 9:43 a.m.: Harris County health official confirmed Tuesday, March 10, that a woman on a return flight to Houston from Italy tested as a presumptive positive for COVID-19.

The woman, identified as 20 to 30 years old, is the fifth case of the novel coronavirus in Harris County. She began presenting mild flu-like symptoms on her trip back to Houston and is currently in self-quarantine at home.

Harris County health officials are urging business and first class passengers aboard Lufthansa flight LH309 from Florence, Italy to Frankfurt, Germany and United Airlines flight UA47 from Frankfurt to Houston on March 3 to self-quarantine and contact their health care providers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has designated Italy a Level 3 country for its widespread community transmission of the novel coronavirus.

In Montgomery County, a 40-year-old man also tested as a presumptive positive for COVID-19 and became that county’s first case and potentially the state’s first case of “community spread.” Officials await confirmation from the CDC. — Shanley Pierce

UPDATE | March 9, 2020, 11 a.m.: Weekend COVID-19 Roundup (March 6-8, 2020)

Memorial Hermann Health System reported that 11 health workers who were in direct contact with a patient who tested positive for COVID-19 were asked to self-quarantine. (Memorial Hermann)Rice University canceled classes March 9 through March 13 after a researcher who became infected during an international trip tested positive for the coronavirus last week. (Rice University)The Houston Health Department, Harris County Public Health and Fort Bend County Health and Human Services are asking people who recently returned from Egypt or were passengers of the M.S. A’sara cruise to immediately self-quarantine for 14 days. (City of Houston Emergency Operations Center and KHOU)SXSW is canceled, but the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo continues amid COVID-19 fears, despite increasing concerns of community spread. Mayor Sylvester Turner explained in a news release that the rodeo is different as “primarily a regional event with attendees from the Houston area, where there is currently no community spread of COVID-19.” (City of Houston)The Houston Health Department (HHD) launched a call center Monday to provide local residents with more information about COVID-19. HHD staff members will be available weekdays from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. to answer questions from the public. (Houston Health Department) — Shanley Pierce

UPDATE | March 6, 2020, 4:30 p.m.: The City of Austin has cancelled South by Southwest (SXSW) and SXSW EDU because of concerns related to the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). The festivals and conferences that make up SXSW were scheduled to begin on Friday, March 14.

“This is the first time in 34 years that the March event will not take place,” a statement posted at sxsw.com said.

SXSW organizers are hoping to reschedule and provide “a virtual SXSW online experience as soon as possible for 2020 participants, starting with SXSW EDU“—which fosters innovation in learning. — Maggie Galehouse

UPDATE | March 6, 2020, 1:41 p.m.: The Houston Health Department reported today another confirmed case of COVID-19. The female patient between the age of 60 and 70 is the second case in the city. She and the three recent patients with COVID-19, one from Fort Bend County and two from Harris County, were part of the same group of travelers who recently returned from Egypt, a country that was not previously on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s restricted travel list.

“This new case in Houston is not unexpected because it’s among the same group of international travelers associated with other cases in the Houston area,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a press release. “There remains no evidence of community spread, no need to alter our normal activity in Houston and certainly no reason to let fear grip our lives.”

The female patient is currently in stable condition at the hospital.

While health officials conduct an investigation to identify anyone she may have had contact with, the Houston Health Department continues to urge the public to remain calm. The immediate risk of exposure to the virus is currently low for those who have not been in proximity to others affected by the virus or who have traveled to an outbreak area. — Shanley Pierce

UPDATE | March 6, 2020, 8:42 a.m.: A research staff member at Rice University is the third confirmed case of COVID-19 in Houston, university officials reported Thursday.

The employee is currently hospitalized and in stable condition. The person was under self-quarantine earlier this week after being exposed to the coronavirus while traveling abroad last month to a country not on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s restricted travel list.

“Rest assured that we are doing everything possible to prevent the spread of the virus and ensure the safety of our community,” Rice president David Leebron said in a statement issued Thursday evening.

The other Rice researchers, faculty, staff and doctoral students remain in self-quarantine with no reported symptoms.

“We are doing everything we can to support them while they remain in quarantine, which should end next week if no symptoms develop,” Leebron added. “Our campus custodians have thoroughly sanitized the area that the affected staff member came in contact with and have extended those extra measures to major touchpoints throughout the campus. We are working closely with Harris County Public Health and taking guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of those efforts.”

There is no evidence of community spread of the virus, according to officials. The university does not plant to suspend campus operations or classes at this time.

Harris County Public Health officials announced Thursday that two people from northwest Harris County tested positive for COVID-19. Also this week, a Fort Bend County man became the first “presumptive positive” in the Houston area. — Shanley Pierce

UPDATE | March 5, 2020, 3:45 p.m.: Harris County Public Health (HCPH) officials reported two confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the unincorporated area of northwest Harris County on Thursday. The news comes one day after a 70-year-old man in Fort Bend County became the first “presumptive positive” for the novel virus in the Houston area.

The two Harris County cases, a man and a woman, are reported to be travel-related. There is currently no evidence of community spread.

HCPH epidemiologists have launched an investigation into potential cases in the county and will continue to identify any and all other individuals who may be infected.

“Since January, we have been at an elevated level of readiness to prepare for and respond to a positive case here in Harris County,” HCPH Executive Director Umair Shah, M.D., MPH, said in a statement. “We will continue to take action by identifying potential contacts and monitoring them closely.”

While the news of the second and third confirmed cases in the Houston area will likely heighten fear, officials advise residents to remain calm and take precautions.

“The best tools to fight the spread of this illness are facts, not fear,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “Residents should know that we have been leaning forward to make sure our response to this illness continues to be proactive and coordinated with a wide array of local, state and federal officials.” — Shanley Pierce

UPDATE | March 5, 2020, 9 a.m.: A 70-year-old man from Fort Bend County is confirmed to be the first “presumptive positive” case of COVID-19 identified in the Houston area. This marks the first instance of the novel coronavirus in Texas that is not related to passengers under federal quarantine from Wuhan City, China or the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

According to Ford Bend County health officials, the man—who recently traveled abroad—was hospitalized on Wednesday afternoon and is currently in stable condition.

The Houston Health Department, which serves at the regional public health laboratory for a 17-county region of Southeast Texas, conducted the initial test and sent a sample to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for further confirmation, an agency spokesman confirmed Thursday morning.

“Having a COVID-19 case in Texas is a significant development in this outbreak, but it doesn’t change the fact that the immediate risk to most Texans is low,” John Hellerstedt, M.D., commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said in a statement. “This travel-related case reinforces the fact that we should all be taking basic hygiene steps that are extremely effective in limiting limit the spread of COVID-19 and all respiratory illnesses.”

Currently, Texas has 11 confirmed cases of COVID-19—nine from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, one from a group of quarantined passengers traveling from Wuhan and one from the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. All 11 cases are part of a quarantine at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.

The Houston Health Department is part of the CDC’s Laboratory Response Network (LRN) of labs which can react to biological and chemical threats as well as other public health emergencies. The regional reference lab currently has one testing kit with capacity for 700 specimens, which equates to about 350 patients, a news release issued late Wednesday by the agency said.

“This is a rapidly evolving situation, and we know it is concerning and unsettling for our residents,” Fort Bend County Judge KP George said in a statement. “While this is a serious public health threat, we encourage residents to rely on verifiable sources of information and remain calm.”

Fort Bend County officials will release more information today. — Shanley Pierce

UPDATE | March 3, 2020: Nine people have died from COVID-19 in the United States including seven who were residents of a Seattle-area nursing home. There are currently no confirmed cases of the virus in Houston or Harris County, according to the Houston Health Department.

On this opening day of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo amid flu season and coronavirus concerns, the rodeo is offering health tips on its website to help guests avoid illness, especially during and after visiting interactive exhibits.

In Agventure, a family favorite offering a petting zoo and pony rides, there are additional hand-washing stations. Visitors also will find more hand sanitizer stations in Agventure, in food tents and at The Junction—a child-focused area with rides, games and exhibits. The rodeo also is providing hand-washing instructions in bathrooms and there are additional signs reminding visitors to wash their hands.

“Guests are encouraged to wash hands before eating or drinking and after touching animals or touching anything in surrounding environments,” according to the rodeo’s hand-washing recommendations. The health tips are provided in consultation with the Houston Health Department. — Cindy George

UPDATE | March 2, 2020: Five people have died from COVID-19 in the United States and all were patients at a Seattle-area nursing home, which has stoked concern in Washington State.

The number of global coronavirus infections is moving closer to 90,000 cases with more than 3,000 confirmed deaths. While China has mitigated the spread of the virus within its borders, the virus appears to be spreading in the United States.

According to health officials, there are more than 90 confirmed cases of coronavirus nationwide reported in at least 10 states: Arizona, Washington, California, Illinois, Rhode Island, New York, Florida, Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Oregon.

There are no reported cases of the coronavirus in Houston; however, heightened concerns over the potential spread in the city led organizers of IHS Markit’s CERAWeek, a weeklong oil and gas conference with expected attendance by international guests from more than 80 countries, to cancel the event scheduled for March 9 through March 13.

“Over the last few days concern has mounted rapidly about the COVID-19 coronavirus. The World Health Organization raised the threat level on Friday, the U.S. government canceled a summit meeting scheduled in Las Vegas, an increasing number of companies are instituting travel bans and restrictions, border health checks are becoming more restrictive and there is growing concern about large conferences with people coming from different parts of the world,” an IHS Markit statement said.

CERAWeek has convened in Houston for more than 35 years and is slated to return in 2021, a statement from Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said. He noted that the organization also cancelled two other international conferences this month in New Orleans and Long Beach, California.

In addition, a group of staff members and students at Rice University were placed in self-quarantine on Saturday after a researcher was possibly exposed to the coronavirus while traveling abroad, according to the university. — Shanley Pierce

UPDATE | February 27, 2020: Coronavirus has spread to every continent except Antarctica, with Brazil announcing the first case in South America on Wednesday—one day after U.S. health officials warned of a when-not-if “community spread” of the illness. This week, the White House unveiled a $2.5 billion plan to fight coronavirus, including more than $1 billion to fund development of a vaccine.

“We have no cases in the city or anywhere in southeast Texas,” said David Persse, M.D., the City of Houston’s public health authority.

The Houston Health Department (HHD) is part of the CDC’s Laboratory Response Network (LRN) of labs which can react to biological and chemical threats as well as other public health emergencies. The city lab, which handles specimens from surrounding counties and is among 10 LRN sites statewide, will be able to test for coronavirus when kits are received from the CDC, Persse said.

In addition, HHD has been working with Harris County Public Health (HCPH) to educate officials in schools and major employers about how to handle people who return to Houston from overseas travel.

“We are working with the hospitals with their planning on how they are going to handle their surge capacity in the event we have lots of folks either coming to the hospital wanting to be evaluated or people who are actually sick enough to be admitted,” Persse said. “The hospitals are operating near capacity to begin with.”

This month, Persse and HCPH Executive Director Umair Shah, M.D., MPH, met with officials from the five largest Houston-area hospital systems and local medical schools to discuss testing, public messaging and surge capacity for hospitals. Persse and Shah also convened public health officials from across the region at UTHealth’s School of Public Health and reached physicians by addressing a meeting of the Harris County Medical Society. — Cindy George

ABOUT COVID-19
Health officials globally, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are closely monitoring the swiftly evolving outbreak of a novel coronavirus. The virus, SARS-CoV-2, causes coronavirus disease 2019—which is abbreviated as COVID-19.

First detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province in China with known cases dating back to early December 2019, there are now COVID-19 illnesses identified worldwide. WHO declared the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern” on Jan. 30. The next day, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex M. Azar II declared a national public health emergency. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) are studying COVID-19 to find new diagnostic tests, treatments and vaccines.

Click these CDC links for the COVID-19 Situation Summary and the count of U.S. cases.

Imported cases in travelers have been detected in the United States and there has been person-to-person coronavirus transmission between close contacts. Officials are preparing for an emerging public health threat, though the risk of community spread is considered low at this time, according to the CDC.

TMC leaders are coordinating to address the outbreak in the Houston area. Read more about early efforts in this President’s Perspective by Texas Medical Center CEO Bill McKeon, which ran in the February issue of TMC Pulse magazine.

Check this page for frequent updates related to the ongoing outbreak and news in the Houston area.


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