Coronavirus in Houston: We answer your COVID-19 questions

COVID-19 has upended life as we knew it in Texas. Questions that readers have submitted through our homepage Assignment Desk tool are answered here by Houston Chronicle staff writers Samantha Ketterer and Hannah Dellinger. In the list below, click on the question you want answered and it will take you directly to our response. Do you have a question not answered here? Submit it in the widget at the end of this post and check back later.

Is it OK to run or walk outside while practicing social distancing? Are masks necessary?

Walking and running is thought to be generally low risk as long as you’re social distancing, said Dr. Stacey Rose, an assistant professor in infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine. The spread of disease is lessened in open air settings, and even if a runner passes you briefly, your risk of transmission is still lower compared to when you’re standing or running next to someone for a prolonged period.

In most cases, it shouldn’t be difficult to maintain 6 feet of distance from others, Rose said, even if you’re walking with a friend. And CDC guidance for wearing masks is really for situations where you can’t social distance, such as the grocery store, so masks aren’t actually required, she said.

A new study released in April by researchers based in Belgium, Netherlands and suggests 15 feet between runners and walkers is ideal.

Is now a safe time to be moving to a new apartment or house?

The CDC doesn’t have formal recommendations here, so it’s really up to you to use your best judgment. Think about whether you or your family actually need to move at the moment, or whether it can wait, Rose said. And if you’re in a high-risk category for complications from the coronavirus, you need to take that into consideration.

You can take precautions on your own end during the moving process, and if you’re hiring a moving company, make sure that they are, too, Rose said.

Should I travel within the country, or even within the state?

This is up to you, but use good judgment. Look up the state of the pandemic in the location you’re visiting, and take into account whether you’re going to be in close contact with others during your trip, according to the CDC which updates cases daily. If you don’t have a plan for taking time off from work or school in case you are told to stay home for 14 days, you might want to think twice about traveling.

Air travel is obviously riskier than driving, because being in a crowded setting might increase your chances of contracting the virus. If you are in an at-risk category, the CDC recommends that you avoid all nonessential air travel. And if you have loved ones at home who are at-risk, think about the possibility that you could spread the disease to them when you return.

What should I do if my roommates or loved ones aren’t practicing social distancing?

Ultimately, you can only help educate those people, but you can’t force them to be responsible, said Dr. Stacey Rose of Baylor College of Medicine.

Try to teach them about the community risk they pose to others when they don’t social distance, Rose suggested. If they don’t listen or change their behavior, see if you have the option to remove yourself from that setting. Not everyone has that luxury. If that’s the case, modify your own behavior. Maintain distance from your roommate, clean your household surfaces and consider eating at different times, Rose said.

Is the virus airborne? How much of a distance should you maintain from other people outdoors?

Yes, COVID-19 is airborne. A recent study suggests it can travel more than 13 feet in the air. The CDC is still recommending people keep a distance of at least six feet.

Is there any danger in using restaurant pick-up or delivery?

After researchers found evidence that suggested the novel coronavirus could live on surfaces for hours or days, health experts changed their recommendations for ordering take-out and delivery.

Here are some tips on how to safely eat a meal after delivery or pick-up:

Avoid direct contact with the person delivering your items.
Place your order, still in the bag, in your sink and disinfect it later. Make sure it doesn’t sit on your counter space, or if that is not possible, disinfect the counter after.
Transfer your food from the containers to serving dishes, using clean utensils. Put any leftovers in a clean container so you don’t put the delivery packaging in your fridge (it’s not clear if cold temperatures can neutralize the virus currently.)
Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds before you eat your meal. 
Wipe down your sink with a disinfectant when you are done.

Does vinegar kill COVID-19?

Vinegar is used by some as a natural household cleaner because it can break down dirt and can kill some germs. However, vinegar is not recognized as an effective disinfectant by the Environmental Protection Agency. It is not suggested to be used in place of alcohol-based disinfectants or diluted bleach solutions.

What is being done for the homeless?

People without homes are particularly vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. The federal government on April 4 announced it would give $3 billion in aid to help people experiencing homelessness find shelter during the pandemic, as well as expand testing and treatment.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on March 25 said Houston is finalizing lease agreements with two hotels for about 180 rooms that could house patients who need to isolate themselves. Some of those rooms, he said, could be used for the city’s homeless population, as well.

What do I do if my company is remaining open and I still have to go into the office where they aren’t practicing social distancing? I don’t want to lose my job. How do I report them?

To report a business violating the stay-at-home order, you can can the city at 211 or 311.

Is Harris County under a curfew?

No. Harris County and the City of Houston have not issued curfews. The stay-at-home order does prevent residents from leaving their homes for any non-essential tasks.

Montgomery and Chambers counties are the only to implement curfews in the region.

When is the coronavirus expected to peak in Houston?

Most models have indicated that the peak is supposed to occur around May 2. As with anything related to the coronavirus, that could be subject to change. But health officials said the peak should happen in early May.

Can the coronavirus live in water and sewage systems?

At this time, health officials don’t think so. In drinking water systems, conventional water treatment methods should remove or inactivate the virus, according to the CDC. The same goes for proper cleaning and disinfection of pools, hot tubs or spas and water playgrounds.

Less conclusive information is available about sewage systems. The risk is low, but SARs, a 2003 coronavirus, had been detected in untreated sewage for up to 14 days. Wastewater and sewage workers are being urged to be diligent in following good hygiene practices and wearing personal protective equipment while working.

What cleaning products are effective for carpets, wood floors and other hard surfaces?

For hard surfaces, first clean the surface with detergent or soap and water. Then, use a cleaning solution. The EPA has a registered list of effective household disinfectants, but diluted household bleach solutions also work.

For softer surfaces such as carpet, rugs and drapes, clean according to the manufacturer’s instructions, according to the CDC. Use the warmest water possible and let these items dry completely.

Electronics should be cleaned, again, in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. But if you can’t find any instructions, the CDC advises that you try alcohol-based wipes or sprays that contain at least 70 percent alcohol on touch screens.

Don’t forget — always wear gloves, and wash your hands after cleaning surfaces.

What does COVID-19 mean? Is it an acronym?

It’s a combination of a few words. “CO” is for corona, “VI” is for virus, and “D” is for disease, according to the CDC. The “19” refers to 2019, the year of the virus’ initial outbreak in Wuhan, China.

Can COVID-19 lead to meningitis? Am I more likely to suffer complications from the virus if I have had meningitis?

It’s unclear. Some people with COVID-19 have been reported to simultaneously have meningitis, but it isn’t known whether the coronavirus also caused the meningitis, according to the Meningitis Research Foundation. Many viruses do have the ability to cause viral meningitis, however, so health organizations are watching this.

As for the second question, there’s no evidence to show that you’re more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19 if you have a history of meningitis. Meningitis doesn’t cause long-term immune deficiencies, according to the foundation.

Why has there been such an uproar over COVID-19 relative to the worldwide reactions to MERS and SARS?

While death rates for COVID-19 are lower than those of SARS and MERS, the new coronavirus is highly contagious. After emerging in China less than four months ago, the new coronavirus already has killed more than 100,000 people globally as of April 10. That has well exceeded the death tolls of SARS and MERS, the coronavirus diseases that spread in 2002-2004 and 2012, respectively. SARS killed 774, and MERS killed 527.

Because those viruses were so fatal, people became sick quickly and were able to be easily isolated, an immunologist told the Chronicle. COVID-19 is not as easily identifiable as the other two coronaviruses of this millennium, and tracing patients is difficult.

Is the state of Texas requiring vehicle registrations to be renewed during the pandemic?

Driver licenses and IDs that expire on or after March 13 will be valid for 60 days after the end of the Texas state of disaster declaration. People who are ineligible to drive due to a suspension, revocation or denial remain ineligible for this and can only use their card for identification purposes.

Registration renewal can still be done online at For more information, Texans can contact the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles at 888-368-4689.

What are some mental health resources I can use during this stressful time?

If you’re at a loss for where to find help, start with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s resources on how to cope with your own stress. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has some resources as well.

Many therapists are still providing services through phone or video appointments, and there are plenty of other self-care practices you can try.

One Houston-area licensed clinical social worker has offered some suggestions on taking care of your body, mind and spirit. Eat more nutritional foods, drink less caffeine, consume less sugar and exercise. Try deep breathing, journaling, and finding calm distractions such as games, yoga, crossword puzzles or books. Learn something new, discover new music, and limit your exposure to the media one or two times a day. If you’re religious, find comfort in religious videos, literature, podcasts and online services. Go outside, tend to your garden, and most importantly – reach out to the people you love.

Are there senior shopping times at Houston grocery stores?

There are quite a few. Some of them –Walmart, Whole Foods and Food Town – offer shopping times exclusively for seniors early each morning. Others – Target and Walgreens – have designated days during the week to do this. Look at our guide online for more specifics.

Can the coronavirus be transmitted by mosquitoes?

This is totally a myth, according to the World Health Organization and the non-profit American Mosquito Control Association. There is no evidence the virus can be spread by mosquito bites – it instead spreads by droplets released when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

How does the new coronavirus attack the body?

Once the virus enters your body through the mouth, nose or eyes, it attaches itself to a “door” on the cells of the respiratory system, said Pedro Piedra, a professor of molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine.

Ridges on the virus allow it to hook onto a cell, and the coronavirus fuses itself inside. Then, the coronavirus takes over. It kidnaps the cell and directs the body to replicate the virus, Piedra said.

The coronavirus itself can cause enough direct injuries to the body that it causes in an infection in the lungs, destroying itself and damaging the organ. The immune system can also become overzealous in fighting the virus, causing more destruction in the respiratory tract.

In most patients, people see symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath. In the worst cases, patients can develop pneumonia in both lungs and multiorgan failure, according to the CDC.

How can I protect my baby or toddler from the new coronavirus?

Luckily, COVID-19 seems to be much milder in children than in adults, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. But children can still catch and spread the virus like anyone else, so it’s best to keep your child away from crowds and not put them in situations where they could break social distancing rules.

Clean the surfaces in your home frequently, launder their clothes and plush toys, teach them to wash their hands properly, and make sure they stay away from people who are sick, the CDC advises. If your child is at an age where they don’t understand the situation and can’t keep their hands out of their mouth and face, it’s especially important to disinfect your home and their toys often.

Does the state have a stay-at-home order?

Yes. Gov. Greg Abbott has stopped short of labeling it as such, but his executive order is, for all intents and purposes, a statewide stay-at-home order. The order, which went into effect on April 2, “requires all Texans to stay at home” except for essential activities. It differs from many local orders in that it considers houses of worship to be essential.

But Abbott has said that houses of worship must, whenever possible, conduct their activities from home or through remote audio or video services. In places where “substantial” community spread of coronavirus has not yet occurred, Abbott said that in-person gatherings are allowed as long as they follow all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, such as instructing the sick to stay home and keeping six feet of distance between people.

Will I be able to visit family in jail or prison?

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice suspended visitation at all facilities statewide until further notice on March 13. The Harris County Jail ended visits on March 14.

Are Houston hospitals prepared for the COVID-19 surge?  

The city’s health care leaders are working now to make contingency plans so that hospitals will not become overwhelmed by the expected surge in COVID-19 patients.

Backup plans include repurposing unused hospital beds to build a makeshift facility at NRG Stadium. That said, Houston city and medical officials says the extent of the surge remains to be seen in the next two to four weeks and many unknowns remain.

Why is the Chronicle’s reported number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Texas significantly higher than the official counts from the CDC?

We are tracking cases in real-time with data from state and local public health departments and our own reporting in addition to the numbers from the CDC, which tend to lag behind local counts.

Are homemade face masks safe to use?

Somewhat. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending cloth face masks — not surgical masks or N-95 respirators — to prevent spreading the new coronavirus. The surgical masks and N-95 respirators are critical supplies that must be reserved for health care workers and other medical first responders.

Experts, though, caution that cloth face masks will not likely protect you from being infected by the virus. The main point is reducing the amount of virus-containing droplets exhaled by unknowingly infected people.

Should we be concerned about travel from states where COVID-19 case counts are higher, like Louisiana?

At this point, the CDC is recommending that people refrain from non-essential travel during the pandemic. But when people inevitably cross from Louisiana to Texas, state troopers will enforce travelers to self-quarantine for two weeks. Under the new rules, drivers with commercial, medical, emergency response, military or critical infrastructure purposes for entering Texas are exempt.

Does a flu shot or pneumonia shot prevent me from contracting the new coronavirus?

No. While the flu and the novel coronavirus share some symptoms, they are NOT the same. But physicians encourage everyone to get a flu shot and a pneumonia shot, if eligible, to ease the burden on the healthcare system down the line, and to prevent complications if you have concurrent illnesses.

What’s deemed as “essential” or “non-essential” in Harris County’s stay-at-home order?

The stay-at-home order has wide carve-outs, including for car repair shops, laundromats and liquor stores. Others, such as hair and nail salons, gyms and tattoo parlors, are required to close.

In Harris County, essential activities are ones that are necessary to a person’s health and safety. They might include obtaining or delivering necessary supplies or services, providing essential products to an essential business, and caring for a family member or pet in another household.

Critical infrastructure identified by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security are identified as essential businesses. The same goes for essential government functions, essential healthcare operations, and essential retail. Businesses that provide basic necessities to the economically disadvantaged are essential, as well as services that are needed to maintain operations of residences or businesses.

For a more complete list of what’s included in the order, check here.

How are Harris County and its cities enforcing the ‘no dine-in’ rule for restaurants and the stay-at-home orders?

Peace officers are tasked with enforcing the rule, and violators can face up to 180 days in jail or a $1,000 fine. But the county is hoping for voluntary compliance, so discretion will be used in arresting or fining people.

You can call 211 or 311 to report a violator. And for a list of what businesses are exempted from the order, click here.

Is it safe to view the bluebonnets?

Texans are running out of time to see the state flower, so now is a great time to visit.

Plants in general don’t support animal viruses (such as COVID-19), so the bluebonnets are likely not infected, said Karen-Beth Scholthof, a professor of plant pathology at Texas A&M University.  It’s unclear how long they might be a surface for the virus, however, so it’s best to look and not touch.

Another thing – find a spot away from other people, so it’s social distancing even when viewing the flowers. And if you’re sharing cameras and phones, sanitize them before you hand them to someone else.

Is it safe to handle and read my delivered Houston Chronicle newspaper? What about packages and the mail?

Phew. Health authorities have given no indication that the coronavirus can spread on newsprint, Chronicle Executive Editor Steve Riley said. But press workers and delivery agents are using gloves.

Same thing with the mail – no indication from health authorities there. And coronaviruses aren’t thought to travel well on those types of surfaces, so the risk is “very low” for packages or products that have been shipped, according to the CDC. But it’s best to err on the side of caution when opening packages – a study from the New England Journal of Medicine found that COVID-19 can survive up to 24 hours on cardboard.

It’s a good practice to wash your hands after bringing in packages, and dispose of or recycle the packaging.

While we are doing social distancing, how about our police officers and firefighters? Do they need protection gear like healthcare professionals?

Social distancing isn’t always possible for first responders, but they’re taking precautions. Police officers wear masks – but they are shaving their beards so they fit better – and firefighters wear masks and gowns to respond to COVID-19 calls. They may use raincoats for protection if those supplies get low, and firefighters already use gloves and goggles on any medical calls.

The CDC recommends that medical responders assess patients from 6 feet away if they have signs of respiratory infection and limit contact with patients until they are wearing face masks. But shortages are a concern – police chiefs nationwide, including the Houston police chief, have called on the president to ramp up production of masks and other protective gear.

Is it safe to work in pet-care industry? Should such facilities close?

Breathe easy – the CDC doesn’t have any evidence that pets can spread COVID-19, or that people can spread it to their furry friends. But if you think you might be infected, it’s best to play it safe and keep your distance until the CDC gets better answers on this one. Some organizations are urging the government to consider pet care facilities as “essential businesses,” and states such as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania agree. In Texas, the jury is still out, but as with any businesses at the moment, pet care locations — pet food stores, boarding kennels and veterinarians’ offices — should adhere to good social distancing practices.

Do allergies make a person more susceptible to the new coronavirus?

There isn’t any research suggesting that people with seasonal allergies are more likely to contract COVID-19. People who have respiratory issues or are immunocompromised are at more risk of contracting the virus, however.

All allergies are caused by your immune system’s reaction to harmless stuff like dust or pollen, per John Hopkins University. If you have allergy symptoms like a runny nose or a migraine, it’s because your immune system is attacking an allergen. People who have allergies are not necessarily immunocompromised, because their immune systems regularly actively fight allergens.

Do UV lights work to sterilize medical equipment?

Ultraviolet lights can kill up to 97.7 percent of pathogens in an operating room, according to a 2019 study by the American Journal of Infection Control. The study looked at a specific device — PurpleSun — which is designed to be used in medical settings. While the technology did decrease the chances of infection in patients, the study says that UV lights can’t completely replace traditional cleaning and chemical disinfection, but should be used in tandem.

If you stay at home with the virus, how long before you are no longer a source of contagion for others?

People who contract the virus can stop self-isolating once they haven’t had a fever without help from medicine for at least 72 hours, other symptoms have also improved and it’s been at least seven days since they first showed signs of being sick, according to the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines. But you should always follow instructions from your doctor and local health department officials first.

How are funerals affected?

Funerals are difficult enough already, but COVID-19 has made them even more so. The CDC has suggested that funerals are live-streamed. Houston funeral homes are working with families on internet services and small chapel or graveside services. Social distancing rules would still apply.

If you’re at a funeral of someone who died of the coronavirus, you aren’t thought to be at risk by being in the same room as the body. But just to be safe, you should consider not touching the body, just in case.

Can officials release names of places visited by those who tested positive?

Yes, and they have been. Local health officials are working to notify people who may have come into contact with those who test positive. Follow our live blog for a list of the latest announcements by health officials.

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