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Public health experts address state of COVID-19, with no plans to scrap SXSW

Wednesday, March 4, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

Tuesday’s Travis County Commissioners Court meeting was virtually a preview of a news conference scheduled for today regarding the region’s response to the ongoing spread of COVID-19, more commonly known as the coronavirus.

During a presentation to the five-member board, Dr. Mark Escott, interim medical director and health authority for Austin Public Health, said local authorities are monitoring “one or more” individuals possibly infected with the virus. Escott said if those people are found to be infected they will either be hospitalized with specialized care plans or restricted in their homes until they have recovered and are no longer considered a carrier of the virus.

Escott will join Mayor Steve Adler and County Judge Sarah Eckhardt at a news conference today at 10 a.m. in the media room at City Hall to share information about the local response to the virus.

During his Tuesday presentation, Escott stressed that the disease in the majority of cases presents in the form of cold or flu-like symptoms and has a mortality rate of 0.7 percent outside of the initial outbreak site in China’s Wuhan province, where it led to deaths in more than 5 percent of cases.

“This is not ebola. This is not even SARS or MERS. This has substantial public health implications but not everyone is hospitalized. In fact, the vast majority of people are not hospitalized,” he said. “This not the 50 to 90 percent case fatality rate that we see with ebola.”

Tuesday’s discussion came after officials with South by Southwest said they will not cancel the 10-day festival that begins March 13, despite public pressure to scale it back or not hold the event at all.

When Commissioner Brigid Shea asked about his position on holding the festival, Escott said he and a task force of medical specialists will continue to discuss the risks and health care considerations related to the disease. He said there has been no evidence of airborne person-to-person spread of the virus, with transmission coming from contact with liquids or surfaces where the virus is present.

“There is not strong evidence that canceling mass gatherings breaks the chain of transmission of infectious disease,” he said. “It seems at this stage that eliminating it is going to be an impossibility. The strategy now is to really stretch out the outbreak of disease. We’re hoping seasonal changes may impact the rate of spread of the disease at least in the Northern Hemisphere to buy us some more time to identify a treatment and develop a vaccine.”

In a statement released ahead of Wednesday’s news conference, Adler said the health officials Escott convened planned to meet Tuesday night to assess the latest developments in the disease’s possible presence and spread locally.

“At this time, our public health officers are not recommending cancellation of South by Southwest. If local public health officials report any change in their assessment and recommendation, immediate action will be taken,” he said. “Know that this situation is being constantly monitored and reevaluated daily. Our public health officials are in constant communication with a local advisory panel (with all three hospital systems and top area physicians) and other professionals in cities across the country evaluating information and practices from around the world.”

Eckhardt cautioned against drastic and alarmist stances like those pushing to cancel SXSW.

“I understand that the epidemiological world is counseling that this is a worldwide effort, that lockdown self-preservation modes do not appear to be the way to go in this instance,” she said. “To soberly assess the risk and effectively distribute tools and vaccines requires we all must have a worldwide, we’re-all-in-this-together kind of attitude, rather than a lockdown, hoarding, it’s-me-against-the-world attitude.”

Photo by BY-SA.

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