‘This virus is probably not going to go away’: Texas A&M pandemic expert on re-opening Texas economy


AUSTIN (Nexstar) — As questions swirl about how Texas will revive its economy in response to the coronavirus outbreak, the state’s medical and legislative leaders are preparing for that kickstart.

Governor Greg Abbott will clue Texans in on some of those answers on Friday at noon when he reveals details about the state’s economic revitalization plan.

“Nothing compares to this,” said Dr. Gerald Parker, a pandemic expert.

Parker is the director of the biosecurity and pandemic policy program at Texas A&M’s Bush School and he serves as associate dean for Global One Health in the College of Veterinary Medicine in College Station. His more than three decades of public service culminated with his service as the deputy assistant Secretary of Defense for chemical and biological defense in the U.S. Department of Defense. He has responded to natural disasters and pandemics, including H1N1, Ebola, and SARS.

“This virus is probably not going to go away,” Parker said. “So we’re going to have to, you know, in addition, once we get back beyond, you know, the phase of flattening the curve, we’re gonna have to manage the curve.”

“Keeping our economy completely shut down beyond just essential businesses, also has significant public health, medical and mental health, in addition to just, associated with us losing jobs,” Parker said. “So we can’t stay on this lockdown mode forever.”

What does a jump-start of the Texas economy look like?

“Even when we restart the economy, social distancing is still going to have to occur,” Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen said.

“I’m just concerned about getting that economy going as soon as we reasonably, medically, scientifically can, but also Texans understanding that we’re going to have to walk out of this, we’re not going to be able to sprint out of it,” Bonnen added.

Bonnen urged patience as business owners attempt to return to some semblance of normal.

“They will be more successful if when they go back, they can go back in a strong economic position of vibrance and having a full capacity, versus a slow trickle of death, which is what we need to avoid from happening,” Bonnen said.

Texas Democrats have voiced concern about re-opening the state’s businesses before large-scale testing capability is readily available.

“Texas is still sick with this virus,” State Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, said.

“Even if every single governmental restriction lifted tomorrow, most Texans are still not going to feel safe to go out and interact as part of the economy like they did in February,” she added.

Zwiener listed off five prerequisites for her to feel comfortable loosening state and local restrictions. They include widespread testing capabilities, additional supplies for hospital workers, expansion of health insurance for more Texans so those who get sick can have easier access to health care, more information about a plan for older populations in nursing homes, and a system in place for contact tracing of positive cases.

“I want to see us get all of those health infrastructure pieces in place before we start taking any serious action to reopen the economy,” Zwiener said.

Parker said laboratory testing is “really essential,” and a fundamental piece of reopening to give experts a better understanding of the viral spread in Texas communities and what level of immunity has developed.

“We’re still flying blind in some respects,” he stated.

On the looming question of what options Texas schools will have to resume in-person classes, Bonnen said gathering the experts to discuss has been a priority.

“We don’t want a single student or teacher put in danger of getting COVID-19,” Bonnen said. “We don’t need to rush them back into a classroom when it is not 100% certain that we have defeated the virus and it is an appropriate place to put students.”

“The smartest thing, whether it’s the economy or schools or what have you, it’s what Governor Abbott is doing, is it bring the experts together, put these minds together and let’s have these discussions, let’s have a very intelligent strategic plan and process and procedures to get the economy back going to get our children back into school,” Bonnen said.

Parker said a successful vaccine is at least 18 months away.

“We’re still going have to manage the curve before we have a vaccine,” Parker said. “And that’s where we get back to some of the basics of public health. When we can get the cases down enough so that we can empower public health authorities who are probably going to have to hire an army of public health frontline providers that can do the contact tracing and help isolate to those who may be infected, and we’re going to have to ramp up our diagnostics much more.”

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