UTHealth School of Public Health Holds Coronavirus Expert Panel

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Cesar Arias, Professor of Epidemiology, School of Public Health; George Delclos, Professor of Occupational Health, School of Public Health; Luis Ostrosky, Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology, McGovern Medical School; Umair Shah, Executive Director, Harris County Public Health; David Persse, Public Health Authority and EMS Director, City of Houston; Lori Upton, Vice President of Disaster Preparedness and Response, Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council; Philip Keiser, Professor of Infectious Diseases, UTMB

In response to increasing concerns of  2019-nCoV (coronavirus), public health experts from regional counties, the state and UTHealth School of Public Health gathered on Wednesday, February 5, to discuss what is known, unknown and what to anticipate about this new strain of coronavirus.

“There is a lot of unfolding information,” said Dr. Umair Shah, Executive Director of Harris County Public Health, “It is important to remember that what we know today is going to be very different from what we know a week from now; a month from now.”

The CDC reports that the virus was initially identified in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China in late 2019 and is believed to have been linked to a large seafood and animal market in Wuhan, suggesting zoonotic origin. Since its original identification, over 25,000 cases of 2019n-CoV have been confirmed around the world, primarily in China.

There are currently no reported cases of the virus in Harris County, however public health officials are confident that should a case be discovered in Texas, the state’s medical infrastructure is more than capable of managing containment and treatment of the virus.

“As a community and as a region, we have never been more ready for an outbreak than right now,” said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology, McGovern Medical School, “In recent years we have experienced SARS, MERS, ebola. We’ve drafted policies, we will be purchasing PPEs (personal protective equipment) and it is just a matter of plugging in the right pathogen and the right signage and we’re ready to go.”

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PPEs are worn by medical professionals when handling highly infectious diseases

Members of the panel also pointed out that vaccine development is already underway.

Dr. Philip Keiser, UTMB, cited that since the virus’ genetic sequence has been made available to medical professionals, the virus itself has been successfully replicated by numerous investigators around the country. Keiser went on to say that a candidate vaccine could be available in as little as three months.

Despite the virus’ absence in Texas, its impact is being felt on local communities.

“We’ve responded to concerns in our local Asian-American community and found that there are a lot of rumors about members of this community (possibly having coronavirus). The Asian-American community is not at an increased risk of contracting the virus, unless they have traveled to certain parts of the world in the past fourteen days,” said Shah.

Panelists also warned about the spread of misinformation about the virus via social media, referring to numerous posts with outdated images and claims made by false public health officials. Vigilance among social media users against outrageous claims was encouraged.

Dr. Robert Emery, who coordinated the panel, emphasized to the students the importance of cooperation amongst various public health agencies and skills sets. The discussion, he said “represents a wonderful learning opportunity for students to understand how such events unfold.”