The new coronavirus is likely spreading between Victoria County residents, a public health official said Tuesday after three people were confirmed to have the virus.
Those three people mark the first confirmed cases in Victoria County of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, said Dr. John McNeill, Victoria’s public health authority, at the daily news conference.
It is now “very likely” the new coronavirus is spreading directly between residents, an important marker in the spread of a disease, McNeill said.
“It’s highly likely that is occurring elsewhere (in the county), and I think we will find those cases,” McNeill said. “Hopefully, we can isolate them and eventually stop the spread of this virus.
One of the patients is thought to have been infected through “community spread,” a term that describes when a patient who did not travel to an area where the virus is present is then found to be infected.
Statewide, the number of reported cases reached 715 in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday.
Officials also confirmed the second positive COVID-19 case in adjacent DeWitt County. Matagorda County officials confirmed their fifth and sixth positive case of COVID-19 in a news release Tuesday.
DeWitt County officials said they are working to trace how that person, a Yoakum resident, was infected and whether it was from inside or outside the county.
The new coronavirus was first detected in humans last year, and has since spread to infect more than 300,000 people around the world, according to the World Health Organization. The virus can cause a respiratory infection in humans.
The majority of patients who are infected with the new coronavirus will have mild symptoms or even no symptoms at all.
However, available data from countries that have seen large outbreaks suggest that about one in every five patients infected will require hospital care, according to the WHO.
In Victoria County, two women in their 20s and a man in his 30s are confirmed to have the disease in Victoria County, according to a news release from the Victoria County Public Health Department.
Medical privacy laws prevent officials from releasing identifying information about those people.
Those people are likely “doing pretty well,” McNeill said.
Although local officials referred to the three patients as Victoria County residents, they clarified that point, saying the people could be residents of the city or county. All three sought help at a clinic after experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. None of the patients has required hospital care so far.
People older than 65, those with chronic lung disease or moderate to severe asthma, those with serious heart conditions and those who are immunocompromised, including those receiving cancer treatment, could be at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19 regardless of age, according to the latest information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At their Tuesday news conference, Victoria County public health officials said they were working to identify all of those who had come in contact with the community’s first three COVID-19 patients. That process, known as “contact tracing” is essential to the authorities’ strategy in controlling the spread of the virus, officials said.
“That is probably the most important thing we do other than washing our hands,” McNeill said, adding, “Once the virus is in the community, we do everything we can to isolate it. We can’t treat it. We basically have to bottle it up and keep it away from other patients.”
County Judge Ben Zeller further emphasized the importance of contact tracing, saying it was especially important before the virus becomes widespread.
“At this point, we really can prevent further spread by identifying who was exposed,” Zeller said.
Anybody who was in close contact with the patients will be contacted by county health staff. They will be asked to self-isolate and they will be monitored for any symptoms.
The person who was thought to have caught the virus from within the community was not known to the other two patients, but officials said the other two were related.
Contact tracing has yet to be completed on the two related patients, McNeill said.
“That is a very daunting task to say the least,” McNeill said, adding, “(A team) is trying to identify every place where these patients went, who they had communication with, and not just that – did they spend time with them? Did they hug them? Did they get close to them?”
Health officials are monitoring all three people, who have been asked to remain in isolation in their homes.
If a person does not follow requests to isolate themselves, McNeil said he would sign an order that would allow law enforcement to force them to.
Public health officials have not released locations that the three people visited before they were isolated.
McNeill said officials would release that information if it “is necessary.”
“We will be transparent,” he said.
Throughout their Tuesday news conference, public health officials said they had long expected and prepared for the discovery of COVID-19 within the community.
“We’re ahead of the game,” said David Gonzales, director for the Victoria County Public Health Department.
Officials will consider changing their strategy to control the spread of the virus in the community if it becomes “moderate” or “widespread,” Gonzales said.
So far, officials have not handed down shelter-in-place orders that would require residents to remain in their homes except for essential activities.
But they asked residents to continue social distancing, isolation and hygiene practices, which have proved to be the best methods of control without a vaccine or treatment ready.
“Stay at home,” McNeill said Tuesday.
Days ago, city and county officials signed orders prohibiting social gatherings of more than 10 people. Any found to be breaking that order could be fined or jailed.
Although officials said they were optimistic about the current level of preparation for increasing numbers of infected people in the county, they also said circumstances could change rapidly.
“We’ve gone from last week saying things were changing by the day to saying things are changing by the hour to now saying things are changing by the minute,” Zeller said.