Area officials closely watching COVID-19 situation

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

News of confirmed COVID-19 cases creeps closer to home every day, but local authorities are focused on keeping the community updated and prepared to avoid the spread of misinformation and panic.

Deb Strahler with the Williamson County and Cities Health District (WCCHD) said so far the wealth of information available has kept their phones relatively quiet.

“Overall we’ve not been getting a lot of inquiries from the public,” she said. “We’ve been pushing out a lot of messaging, working with the school districts and cities within Williamson County to push out information. There’s literally so much information in the media and on social media that we’re trying to point people to credible places like CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and Texas Department of State Health Services.”

Since first being detected in Wuhan City, China, on Dec. 31, 2019, COVID-19 – also called coronavirus – has claimed 3,996 lives worldwide with 113,584 confirmed cases of the virus. The hardest hit countries include China, South Korea, Iran, Italy and Germany in terms of confirmed cases. The United States has 423 confirmed cases in 35 states, including Texas, with 19 deaths as of March 9.

In Texas, there are 12 travel-related cases of the virus and no deaths to date. No cases have been identified in Williamson County. But as cases of the virus are diagnosed closer to home, area officials are working to be prepared.

“Every week at 4 p.m. on Thursday we have a statewide teleconference where a lot of people weigh in and discuss what their individual municipalities and all levels of government are doing to stay ahead of this, prep and plan,” said Liberty Hill Emergency Management Planner Casey Cobb. “One of the main things coming from the county is really controlling our messaging.”

Beyond that regular communication and some basic preparations there is not much for the City to do at this point.

“Outside of staying wired in and tuned in with higher guidance and authority, here locally all we’re doing is monitoring,” Cobb said. “We’re ordering some sanitary equipment, we’re doing emergency management posts on the website. There’s a ton of literature and guidance and best business practices that have come out and we just push that out to everybody.”

The City of Austin cancelled the annual SXSW event last week and is limiting events with a crowd size greater than 2,500 for the immediate future.

The only local event coming soon that will create a large gathering in Liberty Hill is the May Whimsy and Wonder festival downtown. Mayor Rick Hall doesn’t anticipate any impact, but said it is too early to tell if it will be affected.

“It could potentially be, but I’m not aware of any known cases in the area,” he said. “We do take a risk you know if people come here from somewhere else. I think when we get closer me and (Cobb) will be talking and of course me and Katie (Amsler) will be talking. At this point I don’t anticipate any issues with Whimsy and Wonder. I’m hoping and praying we don’t have to do that, but it’s just one of those things we have to deal with as it comes.”

Liberty Hill ISD has taken additional precautionary measures to help prevent future infections such as hospital-grade disinfectants on campuses and buses, continual education with students on hand washing and sanitizing, and enhanced efforts by teachers and staff to wipe down high-touch areas.

The district said it will also continue to strictly enforce the policy of requiring all students with a fever to stay home until they are fever-free for 24 hours.

In a letter sent home Monday with students across the district, LHISD said it is monitoring reports and information about the virus and “Any decisions that may need to be made regarding a change to school operations will be done so with guidance from the CDC and local health officials, along with guidance and direction from the authorities at TEA (Texas Education Agency).”

Based on current information, the WCCHD says the threat of COVID-19 to the general public in Williamson County and Texas remains low and there is currently no need to cancel local events or classes. Accordingly, there is no current need for residents and visitors to Williamson County to take out-of-the-ordinary precautionary actions against COVID-19.

The focus is on preventive habits to stop the potential spread of the virus if it were to be diagnosed in the area.

“The most important thing is to practice those same five things everyone has been preaching,” Strahler said. “Focus on preventive practices such as washing your hands for 20 seconds, staying home if you’re sick, limiting your time in large crowds. That’s become more of a concern, but not a high concern because there’s still no evidence of community spread cases. All the cases in Texas are from persons who acquired it from abroad. At this point Texas is still considered low risk, but as you’ve seen in other parts of the nation that can change. We’re just using an abundance of caution.”

The virus is spread between people in close contact by droplets landing in the nose or mouth, primarily from the cough or sneeze of infected individuals. It is also possible it can be contracted from touching surfaces with the virus on it then touching one’s nose or mouth.

Hand washing, staying home when sick, not touching eyes, nose and mouth, covering a cough or sneeze and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces are the primary prevention measures to slow the spread of the virus.

Residents are encouraged to get a flu shot if they haven’t already, even though it is late in the season. The shot is not related to COVID-19, but helps prevent people from contracting other illnesses.

“If you have a weakened immunity from being sick with the flu it is going to make you susceptible to any other illnesses,” she said. “Typically in our area until the end of April we still see cases so it’s not too late to get a shot.”

Currently the elderly population is the most at risk.

“Right now they are saying elderly folks are more susceptible to this so our messaging is shifting toward that,” Strahler said. “They’re asking the elderly population to reconsider being out in a crowded area and to stay home if they can.”

This segment of the population, as well as those who have traveled internationally to places hardest hit by COVID-19, should seek medical attention if they show symptoms of being ill.

“Because they are in the high-risk category they should not wait to see a physician,” Strahler said. “They are susceptible as is anyone who has other health issues such as a low immunity, asthma, diabetes or any other chronic disease who is experiencing illness should seek attention.”

The current fatality rate for COVID-19 is 3.4 percent, with a two to 14-day incubation period. While it is similar in symptoms to the flu Americans deal with annually, there is one key difference.

“The base difference is there is not an identified treatment yet,” she said. “So with the flu you have Tamiflu and other antivirals and there are medications now that are shown and proven to reduce the affects of an illness. We also have a flu shot, so a majority of the population that gets their seasonal flu shot will experience a much milder case if they do end up contracting the flu. Right now there is no vaccine and no treatment for this virus yet.”

No one is predicting what changes might come if the virus hits Williamson County the way it has hit other countries or regions in the United States, but looking at their response is a good indicator of what could happen here.

“Looking at other parts of the U.S. in the northwest, they’ve really cut down on all of their large community events. They’ve kind of cancelled everything,” Strahler said. “I would suspect that’s what would happen here. Congregational things would be either cancelled or delayed.”

She added that there is a good middle ground between preparing for the worst and choosing to ignore basic preparedness guidelines.

“There’s really no reason to hoard supplies, hand sanitizers, masks and other things that have been selling out,” Strahler said. “Especially masks, because health workers in hospitals still need those to operate day to day. That’s being felt as a ripple affect as the public is hoarding those supplies. There’s no reason at this point that would need to happen. Using common sense is most important and listening to trusted places for news like DSHS and CDC. They have armies of people watching and updating their guidance every other day.”

To stay updated with the latest recommendations, visit the Department of State Health Services at www.dshs.texas.gov/coronavirus or the Center for Disease Control at cdc.gov .

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