As Victoria officials briefed the public Monday with the latest guidelines from federal officials, those guidelines changed.
The dramatic shift in federal recommendations highlighted the rapidly changing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. Victoria health officials updated their advice to the public in light of the new advice, noting as they spoke that advice appeared to be changing in real time.
Monday afternoon, President Donald Trump released updated guidelines, telling people to avoid social gatherings in groups of more than 10 people, among other steps.
Victoria County has no confirmed cases of the disease as of 5 p.m. Monday, officials said.
All scheduled group programs at the Victoria Public Library and with the city’s parks department are canceled, City Manager Jesús Garza said at the news briefing Monday.
The organizers of the Texas Mile agreed to postpone the upcoming racing event at the Victoria Regional Airport, Garza said.
Monday’s daily briefing from local officials included a notable shift in tone from leaders as they addressed COVID-19, a respiratory disease caused by a new virus that was first detected last year. Because the virus is so new, no humans have immunity and there is no vaccine yet developed, although the first clinical trial for a vaccine began Monday in Seattle.
Dr. John McNeill, Victoria’s local health authority, said residents should “absolutely” work from home if they are able to. Because the disease is so new, the best tools to fight it are hand washing and limiting social interactions.
“We don’t have a whole lot of things we can do to treat it or prevent it, we don’t have a vaccine, we don’t have a specific medicine,” McNeill said. “The only thing we really have is just the ability to isolate ourselves and keep ourselves from getting sick.”
McNeill noted that because information about the disease and its spread was changing so quickly, local officials’ message to Victoria had changed as well.
“We’ve always said that we want business as usual but then a little while ago while we were talking we said, well, it’s not really usual to declare a disaster,” McNeill said. “So we’re probably not business as usual right now.”
County Judge Ben Zeller and Mayor Rawley McCoy both signed disaster declarations shortly before Monday’s news conference, a step that allows the county and city governments to apply for state and federal funding designated to respond to the pandemic.
Zeller and McCoy said they were not yet issuing any mandates regarding gatherings but are asking people and organizations to follow the guidelines. McCoy said he expected a “mixture of mandated actions as well as asking for voluntary actions” as things moved forward.
In addition to limiting social gatherings to 10 or fewer people, federal officials said Monday that all older people should stay home, and that people should avoid nonessential travel and avoid eating and drinking in bars and public food courts. The disease, which is caused by a virus named SARS-CoV-2, is thought to spread mainly between people who are in close contact with one another, within about 6 feet, through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Leaders at the CDC have said they expect many people in the U.S. to be exposed to the virus at some point this year or next, but said they do not expect most people to develop serious illness. Older adults and those with long-term health conditions are at greater risk of developing serious illnesses or complications, according to the CDC.
Experts like Angela Rasmussen, a virologist with the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, say reducing close contact with other humans is one of the best ways to reduce the virus’s ability to spread.
“Because the roll-out of testing has been unacceptably slow, we have no idea how prevalent COVID-19 is in our communities. Since we cannot adequately identify cases, we are not able to isolate them and quarantine those who may have been exposed, and thus we are not able to break chains of transmission,” Rasmussen said in an email to the Advocate. “Because we are unable to accurately determine who is infected, social distancing is critical. Hand washing is important, but it is not enough to prevent spread by respiratory droplets, particularly in crowded environments like bars or restaurants.”
As experts have advised communities on how to slow the spread of the virus, many have pointed to the concept of “flattening the curve” to describe how reduced social interactions gives the virus fewer opportunities to spread. Drew Harris, a population health researcher and assistant professor at the Thomas Jefferson University of Public Health, helped popularize the visual to communicate that if you can’t completely contain the spread of a new disease, populations must at least try to slow it down. Slowing the spread through steps like social distancing will reduce the number of cases that are active at any given time, meaning that the U.S. health care system won’t be inundated all at once.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott reiterated calls to reduce social interaction in a news conference Monday. The governor said as the state’s ability to test for COVID-19 continues to expand, residents should prepare themselves for an increase in the number of confirmed cases, which will almost certainly rise on a daily basis.
“People just need to be prepared and not shocked for the mathematical reality that once wide-scale testing is now being implemented, there will be a lot more people who are identified as testing positive,” he said.
As of Monday, the CDC has reported 3,487 confirmed cases in the U.S. The state has reported 57 confirmed cases across 15 counties.
Because of limited testing availability in the U.S., experts agree the real number is far higher.
Victoria officials will again address the public Tuesday at their daily news conference to discuss COVID-19 preparedness. Superintendent Quintin Shepherd is expected to speak about plans for Victoria’s school district.
As cities throughout the country adapt to life during a pandemic, McCoy encouraged the Crossroads to have hope as the situation changes.
“I can remember as a child living through the polio scare, when I can remember my parents saying, ‘We’re not going to the movies, and we’re not going to the swimming pool.’ Those were serious times as well,” McCoy said. “Things will get better in the appropriate amount of time.”
Until a vaccine was invented, the polio virus annually caused more than 15,000 Americans to be paralyzed.