Houston Health Department

Houston Health Department laboratory now conducting local COVID-19 testing


March 4, 2020

HOUSTON - The Houston Health Department laboratory is now conducting COVID-19 testing for specimens collected by medical providers from patients who meet CDC COVID-19 testing criteria.

In most cases, COVID-19 results are expected within 24 hours of the arrival of specimens to the Houston Health Department lab, which serves at the regional public health laboratory for a 17-county region of Southeast Texas.

Until now, the Houston Health Department lab prepared, packaged and shipped specimens to the CDC lab in Atlanta for COVID-19 testing, a process which took approximately 48-72 hours.

“The city of Houston is monitoring information about COVID-19 and is responding to the public health threat. I am gratified the CDC has approved local COVID-19 testing in our Houston Health Department lab,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. “Local testing capacity is an important step in speeding up the testing process so that we can have the information needed to respond quickly and efficiently should COVID-19 reach our community.”

The Houston Health Department lab currently has one testing kit with capacity to test 700 specimens, which equates to approximately 350 patients.

CDC indicates it will expedite additional kits as needed to meet the demand of local health department labs. Based on the current level of local COVID-19 testing, the Houston Health Department lab anticipates operating within capacity but is prepared to escalate as needed.

CDC is currently requesting COVID-19 specimens that test positive be sent to the CDC lab for further confirmation, but local testing is considered actionable.

The Houston Health Department received COVID-19 test kits as part of the initial CDC rollout to state and local health department labs, but those kits were not initially approved for use based on issues with one of the tree targets of the test. CDC has since issued updated guidance to use the previous kits with the two remaining targets.

Medical providers who have a patient who meets CDC COVID-19 testing criteria should continue to follow normal disease reporting protocol to their local health departments.

People who are sick with fever, cough or difficulty breathing and have traveled to an area with a COVID-19 outbreak or been in contact with a person with confirmed COVID-19 should seek medical attention right away. People who do so must call ahead to let the healthcare professionals know about their symptoms and travel.

Updated CDC COVID-19 testing criteria:

Clinical Features & Epidemiologic Risk
Fever1 or signs/symptoms of lower respiratory illness (e.g., cough or shortness of breath) AND Any person, including health care workers 2, who has had close contact 3 with a laboratory-confirmed 4 COVID-19 patient within 14 days of symptom onset
Fever1 and signs/symptoms of a lower respiratory illness (e.g., cough or shortness of breath) requiring hospitalization AND A history of travel from affected geographic areas 5 (see below) within 14 days of symptom onset
Fever 1 with severe acute lower respiratory illness (e.g., pneumonia, ARDS) requiring hospitalization 4 and without alternative explanatory diagnosis (e.g., influenza) 6   No source of exposure has been identified

People who have not been around anyone with COVID-19 or have not visited an ongoing outbreak area are currently not considered to be at risk.

There are currently no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Houston or Harris County and the threat to the general public remains low. Given the rapidly evolving nature of this public health threat, Americans must prepare for the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak in their community.

“The Houston Health Department routinely investigates and contains infectious diseases and is well-prepared to protect the public if a case of COVID-19 is confirmed in our community,” said Dr. David Persse, local health authority for the Houston Health Department. “Infectious disease investigations include tracing and notifying contacts and implementing control measures, as needed, to contain the spread of disease.”

Although out-of-the-ordinary action is not needed at this time, people should practice routine healthy hygiene habits to help prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses like COVID-19, such as washing hands frequently, covering coughs and sneezes, avoiding touching eyes, nose and mouth, and staying home if sick.

The Houston Health Department and Harris County Public Health report only confirmed cases of infectious diseases and will promptly inform the public if COVID-19 is confirmed in our community.

Houston-specific COVID-19 updates, key messages, frequently asked questions, communication resources, rumor control, emergency preparedness tips and more is available at HoustonEmergency.org.