Fears of coronavirus infection have university officials responding quickly

A staff member checks the temperature of a passenger entering a subway station, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Beijing, China January 28, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

University officials in the United States are scrambling to prepare for the potential arrival of the novel coronavirus on their campuses, even as the health crisis already affects research, travel and, in a few cases, daily life.

At Arizona State University, where a member of the community has tested positive for the virus, a petition calling on the school to cancel classes or do more to protect the community’s health had garnered more than 20,000 online signatures by Tuesday afternoon.

The student who created the petition wrote, “The students of ASU do not feel comfortable attending classes due to the outbreak of the Novel Coronavirus. Until proper precautions have been taken to ensure the wellbeing of the students, such as disinfecting areas the student with Novel Coronavirus was present, ASU students want their classes canceled.”

The State Press, a campus newspaper, reported that nearby stores were running out of face masks and published photos of students wearing masks to try to prevent infection.

School officials declined to say whether the infected person was a student or staff member, or to provide information beyond campus announcements emphasizing that that the risk was low and that university operations were continuing as normal. The infected person in Tempe does not live in university housing and is in isolation, officials said.

On Tuesday, the school’s president, Michael Crow, announced a restriction on travel to China following advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

At George Mason University, a student has been tested for the virus and is awaiting results, school officials told the campus. The student does not live on the Northern Virginia campus and remains in isolation while the CDC conducts a laboratory test, according to the school’s announcement, which said the risk to the public and those on campus remains low.

It’s not surprising that coronavirus fears have arrived at U.S. universities, said Lauren Gardner, an associate professor and co-director of the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

“Cities with big universities are definitely at risk, because there’s a huge population of Chinese students that are studying abroad,” Gardner said.

Several schools, including Baylor University, have tested and isolated students and have been reassured by negative results.

Other schools, such as Miami University in Ohio, are awaiting results from students who recently traveled in China and were exhibiting symptoms.

At the University of Washington, two students are awaiting test results, and a third student tested negative for the coronavirus. A committee has been meeting daily to assess the situation, said Geoffrey Gottlieb, interim chairman of the school’s advisory committee on communicable diseases and a professor of medicine specializing in infectious diseases. The challenges include the number of people in the university system – about 100,000 – and the risk of infection associated with communal living in dorms, fraternities and sororities, he said.

“And certainly parents are always worried about their children when they’re off at college,” Gottlieb said. It can be challenging trying to ease concerns and ensuring that students and parents have the best data and public-health recommendations, he said, so campus officials are working to provide information and allay fears.

Gardner, who does mathematical modeling to predict the spread of infectious diseases, began mapping the coronavirus with a graduate student at Johns Hopkins. Last week, she shared on social media the dashboard that tracks the location of confirmed cases. By early Tuesday it had been viewed more than 350 million times, she said, and they are building a team to keep the dashboard updated. “When [the virus] was contained in China, it was a little easier to keep up,” she said, but now classes have resumed on campus and cases are popping up around the globe.

The outbreak has spurred real-time communication among people on the ground and in labs worldwide, she said.

“It has been amazing watching the research community and public-health communities come together,” Gardner said. “The pace at which the knowledge transfer has been happening is amazing.”

 

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