Three presumptive positive cases of the coronavirus disease COVID-19 were confirmed in Austin on Friday, city health officials said. The cases are the first confirmed in Central Texas.
Following an announcement by Austin Public Health about two cases early Friday, Austin Independent School District announced its schools and offices would be closed. UT Austin followed suit, saying only essential personnel should report to work. St. Edward’s University and Austin Community College also closed.
Austin Public Health said it did not believe the first two people — a man in his 60s and a woman in her 30s — were infected through community spread, meaning the cases did not come from an unknown infected person they had contact with.
The man and the woman are not related, Dr. Mark Escott, Austin's interim medical authority, said. The man, who is critically ill, was transferred to St. David's Medical Center from another hospital in the state and was tested after staff became suspicious he had coronavirus, Escott said.
In a statement, St. David's said the patient was "isolated and separated from other patients and visitors."
The woman, who has mild symptoms, is in quarantine at home.
Escott said epidemiologists are working around the clock to track the individuals' movements before they got sick. His team is also monitoring other people who may have the virus and will be tested. They currently either have no symptoms or minor symptoms and are staying at their homes, he said.
The third case, announced in an afternoon tweet, was a woman in her 60s. Austin Public Health said it believes the case is travel related.
Escott said the public is fighting two epidemics right now: COVID-19 and fear.
"One path is to choose fear and panic. The other path is to choose strength and resiliency. We have to choose strength," he said. "And that means we need people to start planning, we need them to do things that are reasonable to mitigate this risk, to prepare themselves and their family and to not spread rumor and panic."
He said people's strongest defense is hand hygiene: "Washing your hands, not touching your face, cough or sneezing into a bent elbow and, most importantly, staying home if you’re sick."
“This is concerning but not surprising, and we have been prepared for the arrival of COVID-19 in our area,” Escott said in a statement early Friday. “It is critical that the community continue to heed our recommendations and take personal hygiene seriously. This will be the key to ensuring that this virus doesn’t spread.”
The cases, which tested positive in a public health lab, are considered presumptive positives until they are confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
St. David's president, David Huffstutler, said in a statement that people with flu-like symptoms who think they may have been exposed to COVID-19 should talk to their primary care physicians or go to an urgent care clinic rather than an emergency room.
"If they are having trouble breathing or have some other type of related emergent condition, they should go to an emergency department," he said.
Austin Public Health says it continues to urge everyone to help limit the spread of disease through proper hygiene practices:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are unavailable, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Cough or sneeze into your elbow or use a tissue to cover it, then throw the tissue in the trash.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
"If you have symptoms of respiratory illness including cough, fever and shortness of breath, please contact your health care provider," the city said in a news release. "It is important to call ahead before arriving at a clinic, urgent care or emergency department to avoid potential spread."
This post has been updated.