Victoria has not yet seen a case of COVID-19, but local agencies have been preparing for the potential arrival of the new virus since before it was reported in the United States.
“We’ve been watching it since it originated in China,” said David Gonzales, director of the Victoria County Public Health Department. “Even before the first travel case was reported in the U.S., we’ve been having discussions with our local partners to coordinate efforts and start planning.”
Those local partners include the City of Victoria, Victoria County and the Office of Emergency Management as well as VISD, first responders and local health care providers, each of which has been working in close contact with the health department to respond to the potential threat.
“We’ve had meetings every week with different groups, sometimes multiple times a week, to make sure that our local partners are acting on the latest guidance available from us and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” Gonzales said.
Agencies have been instructed to notify the health department if they become aware of suspected cases of COVID-19. Residents should refer to the health department’s Facebook page and its website, vcphd.org, for the latest information. Gonzales said the health department has been sharing information through various channels in an effort to be as transparent as possible. If a confirmed case is discovered, the health department will immediately notify the public.
Suspected cases will be referred to the health department’s epidemiologist, Brittany Burgess, so that she can make an assessment and ensure that the person is appropriately tested.
“We work with local health care providers so that they can do intake assessments on people who are suspected of having the virus,” Burgess said. “This includes a clinical assessment as well as questions about travel history and potential exposure. If there is a risk, they call me.”
In addition to health care providers, first responders – including dispatchers, emergency medical services, police and firefighters – have been trained to screen residents in order to identify potential cases.
“We’ve implemented early screening protocol based on information from the CDC, the Office of Emergency Management and the Victoria County Public Health Department,” said Fire Chief Tracy Fox with the Victoria Fire Department. “If someone has symptoms of infection, the first responder will ask them whether they’ve traveled to an affected area or whether they’ve been in contact with someone who has.”
If a person is suspected of having COVID-19, the first responders will adjust their response to minimize exposure to the virus for themselves and others. This includes notifying the public health authority so that the person can be treated at home.
“If the person needs to be hospitalized, we would notify the hospital prior to transport,” Fox said. “Our goal is to avoid exposing health care professionals unnecessarily.”
As area hospitals and first responders develop best practices based on the health department’s guidance, the Office of Emergency Management works to ensure that agencies are coordinating efforts and sharing information.
“We collaborate with other departments to develop what’s called a Situation Awareness Report,” said Rick McBrayer, emergency management coordinator. “These reports allow questions and ideas to be shared freely between departments. Currently, the Office of Emergency Management’s role is to put everyone in the right room and make sure they talk to each other.”
Additionally, the City of Victoria has been aiding the health department’s efforts to share information externally in order to reassure and educate the public about the new coronavirus.
“The City is working to support the health department by providing them with resources,” City Manager Jesús A. Garza said. “The health department has been doing a great job of monitoring the situation, and our staff has been supporting them in their efforts.”
Burgess said the health department wants people to stay informed about the virus without becoming panicked as the situation develops. For example, she said, if new cases are reported in Texas, this should not necessarily be a cause for alarm.
“We’re expecting to see more cases in Texas,” she said. “It’s not clear whether we will see any cases in Victoria, but it could happen.”
The new coronavirus is known to cause flu-like symptoms, such as fever, coughing and sneezing, Burgess said. People with underlying health conditions or those over 60 years old may develop more serious complications, such as pneumonia. However, about 80% of people only develop mild symptoms.
“This is a public health concern because it’s a new virus and, as with any new virus, we have limited information about it,” Burgess said. “However, there is nothing extraordinary about it compared to other types of respiratory illnesses.”
Burgess encouraged community members to take the same precautions that they would take to prevent the spread of other respiratory illnesses, such as washing their hands, cleaning commonly touched surfaces and avoiding close contact with people who are sick.
“By being proactive, our community members can make a significant difference,” Burgess said. “They are their own greatest asset.”