The threat level for the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is still low for most Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that doesn't mean officials and the public shouldn't take precautions, U.S. Rep. Colin Allred said during a town hall meeting Friday.
Allred, as well as Dr. Philip Huang, the director of Dallas County Health and Human Services, and Dr. Trish M. Perl, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at UT Southwestern Medical Center, stressed that now is not the time to panic. Instead, they said, it is time to prepare.
"We don't know how things will progress," Huang said. "It's an evolving situation. Every day things are changing. We need to be prepared, but not panic."
"We need to be prepared, but not panic." — Dr. Philip Huang, Dallas County Health and Human Services
On the same day as the town hall, President Donald Trump signed a bill that will provide $7.8 billion to the CDC and other agencies working to combat the spread of the virus. Of this, about $950 million is being sent to state and local health departments.
"We are all working together on the federal, state and local level," Allred said. "I'm dedicated to ensuring that our folks have the resources they need to serve our community, and that's why we allocated money to help our local officials in the funding bill signed today by the president."
Allred, a Democrat from Dallas, said about 20% of people in Dallas County do not have health insurance.
"That is a big concern for all of us because we don't want to have a situation where folks don't get tested or looked at because they can't afford to," he said. Allred said his office is working with local safety net hospitals to ensure people without insurance (or good insurance) get the support they need.
Perl is working at UT Southwestern Medical Center, Clements University Hospital and Parkland Memorial Hospital as part of a team of health experts who will help treat people with the virus.
"We're going to be part of the three-legged stool that's going to support the response to this," Perl said.
While a vaccine for COVID-19 is in the works, Perl said it could take as long as a year for it to be ready. In the meantime, she, Allred and Huang stressed that people wash their hands and stay home if they are sick.
"Everyone in this room has had coronavirus," Perl said. "It causes about 30% to 40% of the common cold."
However, novel viruses, such as SARS or COVID-19, behave differently from the more common coronavirus. These viruses are unique because they can enter the lungs and cause pneumonia, Perl said. But because this family of viruses is so common, Perl said health experts are already familiar with how they behave.
"There's a lot of things we can say to you with assurance," Perl said.
"Never in my lifetime, and you can see by my gray hair that I've lived a little bit, have I seen something come from an onset of a case to actually knowing what caused it in [about] a week and a half," she said. "That's remarkable when you think about it."
According to the CDC, there have been 164 COVID-19 cases and 11 deaths in the U.S. spanning 19 states. While the confirmed cases in Texas are travel-related, Huang said, “I think the chances that we will have a case in North Texas are very high. But what we’re seeing here is that we’re ready for it."
By the end of this week, Allred said the Federal Drug Administration will have sent more than 800,000 COVID-19 test kits across the country. Last week, Dallas County became the first to be able to test for the virus locally, according to The Dallas Morning News.
While testing capacity is increasing, Huang said it is not the time for people to rush to their doctors and hospitals to get tested for the virus. "We need to use [these tests] judiciously," he said.
"Through common-sense precautions — not being around folks who are sick, washing your hands, not coming to work or being around other people if you are sick yourself, cleaning places that are consistently touched — those precautions are the best protection you can have against this virus," Allred said. "It's the best thing that we can do. It's on all of us to make sure that we do that and continue to spread the word about the ways we can try and reduce the chance that we're exposed to it."