Houston to declare health emergency regarding COVID-19

Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo closing down amid coronavirus concerns

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Houston officials announced in a 12 p.m. press conference today that the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo will close down  due to novel coronavirus cases present in the Houston area. The action is one part of the Houston’s and Harris County’s reaction to the first known nontravel-related diagnosis of COVID-19 in the Houston region, officials said.

“I will tell you [that] by the end of today, I will be signing an emergency health declaration for the city of Houston,” City of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Turner said the declaration is expected to be in place for seven days. The news comes as regional health officials have confirmed that a Montgommery County man in his 40s has tested positive for coronavirus in what is the Greater Houston region’s first nontravel-related case of the disease. Confirmation of the presumed positive test is still pending from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This individual became infected. We don’t know how, which means there is likely another person in the community. So we suspect that this is potentially the tip of the iceberg – there may be many people throughout the community who are infected, so that’s why we’re taking these steps at this point,” Health Authority for the City of Houston, Dr. David Persse said.

Turner said the new case denotes evidence of community spread for the first time rather than an international travel-related infection.

The health emergency declaration is concurrent with the cessation of the rodeo and the cancelling of the Tour De Houston and the Bayou City Arts Festival and other city of Houston events.

Other events permitted by the city of Houston may be cancelled as well, officials said.

Shortly before the press conference, the World Health Organization had declared the coronavirus a pandemic.  A pandemic is a disease that affects an entire nation or the whole world.

Management for the rodeo – which draws more than 2 million visitors annually – agreed to the shut down and will cease operations at 4 p.m. today.

“As heartbreaking as this is for our millions of fans, our 35,000 volunteers and our staff, our exhibitors and our contestants – it is the right thing to do in the interest of the health and wellbeing of the community,” Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo President Joel Cowley said.

The rodeo is developing plans to refund ticket holders for their unused tickets and asked for patience while they work that process out, Crowley said. He thanked rodeo staff and volunteers for their efforts and said the rodeo had been working closely with city and county officials over the first week of the rodeo to ensure the safety of rodeo-goers given the health concerns associated with the virus.

Persse said the main concern right now is large gatherings given the possibility of person-to-person spread of the disease.

Turner said city and county residents should continue to go about their lives but take precautions to minimize health risks and should stay home if they are showing any evidence of the illness.

Persse added that anyone experiencing novel coronavirus symptoms should call ahead before visiting a healthcare facility to advise them of their health concerns. Such notifications can help healthcare professionals who are vital to the effot to treat victims of the disease and prevent its spread from being exposed and having to quarantine themselves, he said.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county has established a telephone hotline (see sidebar) that residents who do not have health coverage can use to get advice on treatment. All residents are encouraged to call in regardless of whether or not they are undocumented immigrants, she said.

Turner encouraged residents to go about their lives and be aware of the risks of the virus but not to act panicked or fearful, but instead to remain informed as much as possible.

“For City of Houston employees, I still expect you to show up to work tomorrow and to work a full day and to work a full day today,” Turner said.

*Joe Southern of the Sealy News and Roy Reynolds of the Madissonville Meteor  - Katy Times' sister newspapers - contributed to this report. 

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