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How Hurricane Harvey is helping COVID-19 response

A team of Rice University researchers who created the Texas Flood Registry after Harvey is back at it with the COVID-19 registry.

HOUSTON — Houston just can’t seem to shake the grip of Hurricane Harvey.

But it’s a good thing. The epic storm, in its own unique way, is actually helping those on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic.

A team of Rice University researchers created the Texas Flood Registry after Harvey. It surveyed more than 20,000 hurricane survivors to track health and housing effects. The data was used by local leaders to identify better disaster response solutions.

Now the team is back at it, creating the COVID-19 registry.

“One of the things I say to my kids all the time is if you want to be helpful to people, you have to help them in the way that they say is helpful, said Marie Lynn Miranda, a professor of statistics and director of the children’s environmental health initiative at Rice University.

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Miranda said public health officials provided feedback on what information would be most beneficial to responding to the crisis. They include questions on behavior changes, such as washing hands more frequently, avoiding large groups and staying home except for essential activities. More than 90 percent of the 2,200 surveyed so far responded “yes” to all of those questions.

“I’m so impressed with what the people in our community are doing to protect themselves and to protect the larger community,” Miranda said. “This is just really praiseworthy behavioral change."

The survey also takes a deeper look at mental health. More than a third of people -- 39 percent -- said they have felt nervous, anxious or on edge for several days during the crisis. Similar responses were returned for worrying too much -- 34 percent -- having trouble relaxing -- 34 percent -- and becoming easily annoyed or irritated, 36 percent.

Miranda said the stay-home emergency orders, while necessary, have increased people’s sense of isolation.

“We use the term 'social distancing' all the time now, and I really think it’s an unfortunate term,” Miranda said. “We need to physically distance ourselves but we need to draw together socially more than we ever have before.”

The COVID-19 registry, which is open to anyone and not just those who have contracted the virus, also examines physical symptoms. Nineteen percent of survey takers said they have felt feverish during the pandemic. Shortness of breath? 15 percent. Sore throat? 33 percent. But despite those symptoms, 94 percent of respondents said they did not try to get tested. Another 4 percent tried but could not find a testing location.

“We need to do more and we need as much support from as many sources as possible to make that additional testing possible,” Miranda said.

The survey has also shown a deep economic toll. 41 percent of people reported a loss of income by someone in the household.

It’s hard data that is hard to ignore. And unlike a hurricane, it’s much harder to forecast when this storm will move through.

Researchers encourage as many people as possible to participate in the survey to provide real-data time for health leaders to make the best real world decisions.

To take part in the COVID-19 registry, click here.

Coronavirus symptoms

The symptoms of coronavirus can be similar to the flu or a bad cold. Symptoms include a fever, cough and shortness of breath, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Some patients also have nausea, body aches, headaches and stomach issues. Losing your sense of taste and/or smell can also be an early warning sign.

Most healthy people will have mild symptoms. A study of more than 72,000 patients by the Centers for Disease Control in China showed 80 percent of the cases there were mild.

But infections can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death, according to the World Health Organization. Older people with underlying health conditions are most at risk for becoming seriously ill. However, U.S. experts are seeing a significant number of younger people being hospitalized, including some in ICU.

The CDC believes symptoms may appear anywhere from two to 14 days after being exposed.

Human coronaviruses are usually spread through...

  • The air by coughing or sneezing
  • Close personal contact, such as touching or shaking hands
  • Touching an object or surface with the virus on it, then touching your mouth, nose or eyes before washing your hands.

Help stop the spread of coronavirus

  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Eat and sleep separately from your family members
  • Use different utensils and dishes
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with your arm, not your hand.
  • If you use a tissue, throw it in the trash.
  • Follow social distancing

Lower your risk

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
  • If you are 60 or over and have an underlying health condition such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes or respiratory illnesses like asthma or COPD, the World Health Organization advises you to try to avoid crowds or places where you might interact with people who are sick.

Get complete coverage of the coronavirus by texting 'FACTS' to 713-526-1111.