By Gaige Davila
Spring break continues on South Padre Island, amid a pandemic outbreak of COVID-19, a novel coronavirus that causes respiratory illness similar to the flu.
With “Texas Week” on the horizon, when several Texas universities are let out for spring break, the City of South Padre Island has no plans to stop or change their spring break operations, saying they do not host events, rather only assist with planning them and providing security and traffic control.
A City of South Padre Island statement sent to the PRESS also said they have “implemented additional safety procedures to assure cleanliness and awareness within our staff, particularly as it relates to our facilities, amenities and apparatuses.”
In the same statement, the city said that because spring break on South Padre Island “attracts mostly Texas residents,” university students from different states and Rio Grande Valley residents, and not international visitors, such as events like Austin’s recently cancelled South by Southwest event, they are continuing spring break plans as is.
After Texas’ first confirmed case of COVID-19, a novel coronavirus that causes respiratory illness, on March 4, state, county and local offices are preparing for a potential outbreak. As of 11:30 a.m. March 13, there are 140,049 COVID-19 cases worldwide, with 5,123 deaths and 70,733 persons recovering from the virus.
The World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, on March 11, after the virus spread to 114 countries, including the United States. Now, 136 countries and territories have COVID-19 cases.The first case of COVID-19 was discovered in Wuhan, Hubei, China in December 2019.
Point Isabel Independent School District (PI-ISD) Superintendent Theresa Alarcon said she and the district have been “monitoring the updates everyday, throughout the day” on COVID-19, corresponding with the Center for Disease Control, the Texas Governor’s Office, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) the Region One Service Center, and public school district administrations around the Rio Grande Valley.
“We’ve been doing this for well over a week,” Alarcon said. “Ensuring that we have as much information as we need to make the best informed decisions.”
She continued, “We’re taking every precautionary measure, not just with this coronavirus, but with all areas in general.”
PI-ISD, on March 12, cancelled all school-sponsored travel outside the Rio Grande Valley “until further notice,” according to a statement sent to the PRESS.
Alarcon said she’s been meeting with campus principals, the school’s district’s maintenance director and their food service director.
The elementary schools, Garriga Elementary and Derry Elementary, have scheduled handwashing times, where students and staff sing “Happy Birthday” twice–which takes about twenty seconds, as per CDC recommendation for handwashing times–while washing their hands. The students and staff are reminded over announcements of handwashing times daily, along with telling students to cough or sneeze into their elbows and not their hands.
Students in any campus with cold and flu symptoms are being sent home and asked for a physician’s clearance before returning to school. Students are no longer using a keypad or cards for documenting their lunches: cafeteria staff are using a “strikeout” sheet, documenting which students have received lunch, preventing students from touching the same surface multiple times. The Cafeteria department is disinfecting the cafeteria’s tables and kitchen lunch rails in between lunches at the campuses.
More hand sanitizers have been installed, as of last week, and each campus, and their busses, is being disinfected nightly, also as of last week, with a planned “deep clean” for the district’s spring break between March 9 and March 13.
“A lot of this is just good hygiene and good practice that we should be doing all the time,” Alarcon said. “Unfortunately it takes something like this to remind us.”
Alarcon said PI-ISD has not identified any students who have traveled abroad recently and is not restricting them from doing so. An out-of-state conference trip for some PI-ISD staff members was also canceled last week out of precaution.
Alarcon also said the increased cleaning and disinfecting is not impacting class instruction times.
“Staff is trying to take care of as much as possible without impacting what’s happening in the classroom,” she said.
San Antonio universities have extended their spring break periods into next week, with the University of Texas at San Antonio and Our Lady of the Lake University telling students in emailed statements on March 11 that they do not have to physically return to campus until the third week of April. Their classes will move to an online-only format for the time being.
PI-ISD spokesperson Lupita Sauceda told the PRESS that the school district is not extending their spring break nor preparing for an online-only classroom format in the near future.
Alarcon said the district is considering online-only classroom format options, should PI-ISD decide to close the campuses. The TEA recommends a three-week incubation period should a COVID-19 case come within the district, saying it is up to the school district to decide to close campuses.
Alarcon said closing the campuses is still an option if COVID-19 cases get closer to the district, saying there would be no hesitance to do so if necessary.
Government offices across Texas are communicating with each other, keeping themselves updated as COVID-19 cases grow.
“We understand there are concerns of coronavirus, but we currently do not have any confirmed cases in Cameron County,” Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño, Jr., said, in a statement sent to the PRESS. “Even so, our public health and emergency management departments are in constant communication with local hospitals, medical providers, state and federal authorities as they continue to monitor the situation.”
San Antonio, Texas, saw the state’s first COVID-19 cases, via a federal quarantine imposed on Lackland Air Force Base, where 11 people have tested positive for COVID-19. The base has seen over 300 people from China’s Hubei province, the Grand Princess cruise ship, and the Diamond Princess Cruise ship, according to a March 10 report from the Texas Tribune. More than a hundred people from the Grand Princess cruise ship, which has been anchored off the coast of California since last week, are expected to arrive at Lackland this week. Of those people, around 90 are Texas residents.
Texas’ first case was confirmed in Fort Bend County, which is outside of Houston, Texas, on March 4, followed by 11 more cases all linked to a trip to Egypt. There are 49 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Texas.
“Fortunately, we don’t have a case right now in Cameron County,” Cameron County Public Health Department Director Esmeralda Guajardo said on Monday. “But I imagine so at a later time, and I say that only because of the dynamics of where we live, and a lot of people travel.”
Guajardo said the best preparation is prevention to fight COVID-19.
“First and foremost is education,” she said. “The hygiene practices that we follow aren’t always up to where they should really be.”
If someone feels sick, Guajardo recommends seeing a doctor and avoiding visiting an emergency room. Although there are no cases in Cameron County, Guajardo said there is always a lot of work behind the scenes.
“We want to make sure that no one else gets infected,” she said. Guajardo said they are working with medical providers to provide them any information they receive from higher authorities.
“We need to make sure that the medical providers, including EMS, hospitals, doctors’ offices, and us, are at the same pace,” she said.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott said last week that the state now has capability to test for the coronavirus. According to Abbott, the tests will be conducted at 10 Texas labs including Corpus Christi and Harlingen.
“The state of Texas continues to build on our existing capabilities to protect public health and safeguard our communities against the coronavirus,” Abbott said. “With six of Texas’ public health labs now equipped to test for the coronavirus, and the remaining four soon to follow, our state is better positioned to confront and mitigate any potential spread of this virus. The risk to Texans remains low, and I ask that communities across the state continue to heed the guidance of local, state, and federal health officials.”
For more information on COVID-19, visit https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.
Editor’s note: San Benito News reporter J. Noel Espinoza contributed to this report.