Texas officials have been taking steps for the last month to prepare for the potential spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19, Gov. Greg Abbott said.
Abbott spoke Thursday after getting briefed by public health and other state officials. He said he also spoke with Vice President Mike Pence, who is coordinating the response effort at the national level.
While the state began taking steps to prepare a response to the respiratory illness about a month ago, Abbott said it is drawing on historical knowledge responding to other infectious diseases.
“Long story short: There’s a tremendous amount of work that all of these state agencies, the state health leaders and emergency response leaders, have put in for well over a month now ... but they did not start from the beginning a month ago," he said. "They built upon knowledge gained in response to the Ebola challenge, and the H1N1 [swine flu] challenge.”
The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) is leading the effort to respond to the illness here. Abbott said the agency is in close communication with a number of agencies, including the Texas Division of Emergency Management, the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.
DSHS Commissioner John Hellerstedt said the state has been given the green light to validate kits to detect the coronavirus at the state lab in Austin and at members of the Laboratory Response Network. Test kits are being made available to local laboratories through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
DSHS is holding daily calls with public health authorities and health care providers to ensure information is getting from the state to local providers.
"These calls have included 500-600 people per call, and they began on Jan. 24," Abbott said.
He said DSHS has produced guidance documents to be used by state agencies to ensure consistent messaging on the state response to COVID-19 and is sending documents to school districts on how to promote good hygiene.
On Wednesday, Sen. Ted Cruz, who chairs the Subcommittee on Aviation and Space, announced he will convene a hearing March 4 on how airlines can help contain and combat the spread of the illness.
Texas has already been at the forefront of federal efforts to contain the coronavirus. Earlier this month, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport became one of 11 airports in the U.S. to receive flights carrying passengers from China.
Chad Wolf, the acting head of the Department of Homeland Security, said in a statement that funneling travelers through fewer airports “is the most important and prudent step we can take at this time to decrease the strain on public health officials.”
Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio is also one of a handful of military installations being used to quarantine U.S. citizens returning from China. Lackland received its first group of evacuees – 91 – from Hubei Province earlier this month. Of that group, only one person tested positive for the illness. The initial group of evacuees who tested negative were released from the 14-day quarantine last week.
Last week, Lackland received a second wave of evacuees from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where there had been an outbreak of coronavirus. The 144 people in that group remain under quarantine and eight have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
According to Texas Public Radio, one man who tested positive for the infection and was isolated at the Texas Center for Infectious Diseases has been reunited with his wife, who is quarantined at the National Quarantine Center in Nebraska. There are now 145 people at Lackland, Rear Adm. Nancy Knight said Thursday.
There are no other known cases of the coronavirus in Texas.