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Congressman holds media advisory on public health and the Coronavirus

So far Texas is not at risk of an outbreak of the Coronavirus disease.

Congressman Henry Cuellar held a media availability this week to discuss how the federal government is handling the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (referred to as COVID-19) and how it impacts South Texas.

Congressman Henry Cuellar

The Coronavirus, which was first identified during an outbreak in Wuhan, China, has infected one person in San Antonio – the only confirmed case in the state. As of Wednesday, Feb. 19, there have been 29 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States and no deaths.

According to The Washington Post, there have been approximately 74,000 infected and 2,004 dead worldwide due to the Coronavirus. Cuellar noted that the greatest risk of infection is for people in China or people who have travelled to China.

“We have certain things in the United States to prevent this risk of infection,” Cuellar said, adding that the country has a robust healthcare system. “We’ve had different briefings on this issue. Right now, we’re looking at adding resources not only to the Department of Health and Human Services, but also Homeland Security.”

Cuellar said Homeland Security is involved because they deal with people entering the United States from other countries.

“This threat has not affected the work of U.S. Customs,” Cuellar said, stressing that any rumors of an outbreak in a detention facility for undocumented migrants are false. “As you know, this Coronavirus is something that is novel.”

Federally, the government is ready to start testing. Cuellar said the first tests should be conducted in April this year, and they have been told that developing a vaccine could take 12 to 18 months.

“We want to make sure that we have the resources so we can try to expedite this vaccine,” Cuellar said. 

The National Institutes of Health has spent almost $700 million in Coronavirus research and development. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified the disease’s genetic strain, developed a diagnostic test that can detect it in human secretions and plans to distribute 200 test kits (which can perform 700 to 800 patient samples) to domestic labs and 200 to international labs.

The CDC has been working with Customs and Border Patrol, the DHS Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office and other federal and transportation stakeholders on this issue. The case in San Antonio originated at the Lackland Air Force Base.

“We are looking at putting more money in the CDC,” Cuellar said. “This has not impacted the ability of CBP to execute or sustain their homeland security mission.”

As of Feb. 19, Customs and Border Patrol has apprehended 312 Chinese nationals since Jan. 1, 2020.

“191 apprehensions were down here in the Valley,” Cuellar said. “12 apprehensions occurred in the Laredo Sector. There have been no positive tests on any of those.”

Cuellar said the appropriations committee is looking to possibly gain supplemental funds depending on how the threat develops.

“It’s very expensive to come up with a vaccine,” Cuellar said. “We’re hoping we can expedite this, but the good thing is the CDC has been able to isolate the virus.”

He noted that he was working to ensure programs combating COVID-19’s spread are given adequate funding, and will aim to drive down any costs for treatment and healthcare costs. Border Patrol agents have been following protocol to prevent infection among migrants and agents.

“They have certain steps they make sure they protect themselves.” Cuellar said. “We’re trying to do two things: identify anyone that might be infected, and two we need to make sure the men and women doing their jobs are protected also.”

“We have to be careful, because they deal with a lot of people,” Cuellar added. “The main concern were literally people coming in from China – the number of flights have gone down, and that’s the bigger concern. Having somebody coming through the border, that’s always a risk, but it’s not the same thing as someone flying from Mainland China, or even some of the cruise ships that we’ve seen.”

This story was originally published in the Friday, Feb. 21, 2020 edition of the Progress Times. 

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