The coronavirus drama returned to San Antonio when U.S. health officials announced that some passengers from the Grand Princess, a cruise ship docked in Oakland, California, would be flown to Lackland Air Force Base to undergo testing and a quarantine. Some of the evacuees are Texas residents.
A statement from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services explained that passengers "will be transferred to federal military installations for medical screening, COVID-19 testing, and a 14-day quarantine." COVID-19 is the pneumonia-like disease caused by the coronavirus and for which there is no vaccine.
The Grand Princess was quarantined 10 miles off the California coast for days after a former passenger died of the virus. Officials feared the individual may have infected other passengers. There were 3,533 people on board, and 2,422 were passengers. As of Monday, two passengers and 19 crew members were reported as infected.
Almost 1,000 passengers are California residents, the HHS statement explained, and they will spend their quarantine at Travis Air Force Base and Miramar Naval Air Station.
Residents from other states will be quarantined at Lackland or at Dobbins Air Force Base in Georgia.
NPR reported that among the passengers are citizens from more than 50 other nations. The HHS statement explained that State Department will help repatriate them to their home countries.
Once the passengers have disembarked -- a process that will take several days -- the 1,111 crew members will remain on the ship as it sails back out to sea to be quarantined once again.
'Protect the residents of San Antonio'
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg tweeted on Sunday night: "We've been assured that all of the evacuees arriving in Lackland are without symptoms. We've also been informed that a significant number of the evacuees are Texas residents."
"To date, there are zero confirmed cases of community-transmitted COVID-19 in San Antonio or Bexar County," he added. "I reserve all tools available to protect the residents of San Antonio."
In an interview with TPR on Sunday, Nirenberg said that about 90 Texans were on the cruise ship.
Last night, we received word that the federal government has opted to quarantine evacuees from the Grand Princess cruise ship at Lackland AFB.
Full update: pic.twitter.com/qnApA2VATs
— Mayor Ron Nirenberg (@Ron_Nirenberg) March 8, 2020
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff also spoke with TPR on Sunday night. He was cautiously optimistic about how federal officials partnered with county officials and prepared them for a new influx of coronavirus patients.
"Now, the good thing about ... what's going on [is that] at least they're talking to us before we just woke up surprised one day," Wolff said, "and I believe this is going to be handled in a much better manner."
"[The new group of passengers] will stay on the base," he explained, "and not be transported around the city of San Antonio, so I personally feel a lot more confident about it. ..."
Last week, Wolff and Nirenberg declared public health emergencies to restrict the travel of evacuees from another cruise ship, the Diamond Princess. They had completed their two-week quarantines at Lackland and were scheduled to be released, but Wolff and Nirenberg wanted them kept on the Air Force base until they were transported to San Antonio International Airport or took rental cars back to their homes. Federal health officials then modified their protocols, and Wolff and Nirenberg were satisfied with the changes.
So far San Antonio hasn’t seen a community case of the disease. But that was little comfort to Nirenberg, who told TPR on Sunday that cities across Texas and the nation don’t have adequate tests for the disease.
“Nobody has enough tests," he said. "They’ve got to get these tests out. They’ve got to get them out rapidly, and until then we are with an absence of information.”
He said that absence of information only fuels hysteria and fear, making it harder to address the disease.
On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, reported that state and local health departments have access to 75,000 coronavirus test kits from the government.
“But I think, as you know, the number of commercially available tests is much larger than that, and our expectation within the next couple of weeks as more and more commercial entities come on board, is that the majority of actually testing will actually be coming from the commercial sector," said Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
Late last week, John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the state's Department of State Health Services, said the state lab in Austin could test samples from up to 26 people a day. A handful of local health departments in Texas can also do limited testing.
Coronavirus and schools
Coronavirus concerns also cast a shadow on Spring Break.
St. Mary’s University announced on Monday that it canceled Spring Break trips to Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico and Panama due to uncertainties surrounding the coronavirus.
The CDC has not issued travel warnings for those countries. But university officials said they wanted to “avoid the likely challenges associated with crossing international borders and being quarantined.”
Several San Antonio colleges, including St. Mary’s, have suspended university-sponsored travel to countries on the CDC’s travel warning lists, which include Italy, Iran, China and South Korea.
UPDATE#StMU has canceled international spring break trips to Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico and Panama, as a step to safeguard the students, faculty and staff traveling and avoid the likely challenges associated with crossing international borders. https://t.co/781JXSL0ZO
— St. Mary's University (@StMarysU) March 6, 2020
Coronavirus and Texas
The Houston area and North Texas faced their own coronavirus concerns this week.
On Monday, KERA reported that Collin County officials identified a "presumptive positive" case of COVID-19 -- the first presumptive positive case in North Texas.
The patient was a Frisco man in his late 30s who recently traveled to California. Officials said he was in stable condition and was isolated in his home. County health staff said his symptoms did not require hospitalization.
Collin County Health Care Services was waiting for more test results to confirm that initial positive test for COVID-19. They also monitored the patient's family and contacted anyone who may have come into close contact with him.
Health officials said the risk of transmission to Collin County residents was low.
That news came the day after Houston Public Media reported that health officials pointed to three new presumed cases of COVID-19 in Fort Bend County.
In a statement, county officials said the two men and one woman were in isolation in their homes. The region now faces almost a dozen confirmed or possibly positive cases.
Also on Sunday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz announced that he would self-quarantine after speaking with someone who later tested positive for the coronavirus.
He said he also shook the person's hand. The meeting took place during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland.
Cruz said in a statement he was not feeling any symptoms. However, he said, out of an abundance of caution he would remain in his Houston home for two weeks following his meeting with the individual.
Coronavirus and the military
On Monday, the South Texas Veterans Health Care System announced special steps to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
It is screening everyone -- patients, employees and contractors -- who enter three facilities: the Community Living Center, the Spinal Cord Injury Center and the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit.
For now, the screening consists of questions about symptoms and recent travel history.
The screenings may increase the amount of time it takes to get onto VA property, so patients were advised to arrive early for their appointments.
National and international counts
On Monday, NPR reported that the global spread of the coronavirus reached a new milestone, with 110,000 cases reported in more than 100 countries.
Health officials in the United States have reported almost 600 cases in 19 states.
Concerns over public gatherings
This week's developments came after a series of situations or decisions stemming from worries about public gatherings and the fears of fast coronavirus transmission throughout those gatherings.
On Tuesday, March 3, the Archdiocese of San Antonio recommended parishes change how they conducted Mass. Parishes were encouraged to distribute Communion into the hand instead of the tongue, remove holy water from church entrances and avoid physical contact.
Such worries also affected the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, which San Antonio hosted this year. Thousands of people opted to not attend, costing writers necessary exposure for their work and city businesses some critical tourism revenue. But the conference was allowed to continue.
That week of concerns ended with Austin and Travis County officials cancelling South by Southwest, or SXSW, and declaring a local disaster. They said on Friday that they cancelled the music and tech festival out of an abundance of caution. It was the first time the festival was cancelled in its 34 year history.
It was not yet clear how similar concerns over public gatherings would affect Fiesta, San Antonio's biggest festival, with events scheduled from April 16 to April 26. Like Austin's SXSW, it attracts thousands of visitors from across Texas and the nation and brings a massive amount of revenue to city businesses and non-profits.
On Monday, Nirenberg said the prospects for Fiesta are the subject of daily conversations that will continue throughout those five weeks as they monitor coronavirus developments.
"Our health authority is making sure that we have the proper information," he said. "We're getting the good guidance out there to the community to make sure that we limit the spread of any kind of respiratory illness. At this point, we are in good shape but we'll monitor [developments] all the way up to the very beginning [of Fiesta]."
Bonnie Petrie can be reached at Bonnie@TPR.org and on Twitter at @kbonniepetrie.
Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org and on Twitter at @paulflahive.
Joey Palacios can be reached at Joey@TPR.org and on Twitter at @Joeycules.
Camille Phillips, KERA, Houston Public Media, KUT and Fernando Ortiz Jr. contributed to this report.