Local colleges haven’t experienced widespread anxiety about the coronavirus outbreak in Asia, despite the frequent international travel by some students and staff.
At Gustavus Adolphus College, where J-Term study-abroad trips are a much-anticipated January experience for many students, there was enough concern that Heather Dale coordinated some COVID-19 communications to students, staff and parents.
“I think that really helped people understand how Gustavus was responding to COVID,” said Dale, director of the health service on the St. Peter campus.
Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato has students from China, but neither they nor any other students are believed to have traveled to the region of China where the epidemic originated and where the vast majority of the nearly 78,000 cases and 2,361 deaths worldwide have occurred.
“Bethany Lutheran College is not aware of any travel by students to Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, the origin location of the coronavirus outbreak,” said Lance Schwartz, a spokesman for the college. “Additionally, none of the 34 confirmed cases in the United States are known to have any connection to Bethany Lutheran College.”
Minnesota State University doesn’t have any students studying abroad in China, according to a spokesman for MSU. The university’s most-recent breakdown of its 1,357 international students showed 28 from China and 110 from South Korea. Wendy Schuh, director of Student Health Services at MSU, didn’t respond to a requested interview.
At Gustavus, any anxiety about the virus peaked at the end of J-term with “staff, parents, students traveling all over the world,” Dale said. “We haven’t had a lot of questions about it in recent days.”
There were no Gustavus study-abroad trips this year to China, but Gusties, as well as students at other universities who traveled over their winter break, were spending time in international airports and in cramped jetliners with fellow travelers from throughout the world. And travel plans will ramp up again on campuses with the arrival of spring break.
“I would say in general being on airplanes where you have recirculation of air, it’s always important to be concerned about infections,” Dale said.
Her biggest concern, however, continues to be influenza rather than COVID-19, noting that it’s been a more severe flu season than most.
Conveniently, the tactics that people should employ to minimize risk of contracting COVID-19 are ones that have been preached for years during the flu season.
That means diligent handwashing and adequate sleep, Dale said.
Gustavus, which has increased the number of hand-sanitation stations on campus, reactivated its Infectious Disease Committee earlier this year, both because of the new coronavirus and because of the difficult flu season. Made up of a broad cross-section of the campus, the committee works to ensure that the campus is closely following the guidance of state and federal health agencies. Those preparations allow the college to react quickly and appropriately when a concern arises.
“So we have a student who was in an international airport that had a positive case, do we do anything special with that student?” Dale said, citing an example.
The number of cases in the United States remains very low, even as South Korea and Iran experienced a spike in cases in recent days. The 35th case in the U.S. was reported Saturday.
Several of the early cases were in university towns, but the infected residents in Madison, Wisconsin, and Irvine, California, did not have connections to the University of Wisconsin or the University of California-Irvine, according to press reports. Still, there have been incidents reported of people being wary of Asian students because of fears of the disease.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen at Gustavus, Dale said, adding that the Health Service sent out emails to returning students, welcoming them back.
“We don’t think our students experienced a lot of that, and we did hear from them that they appreciated the email,” she said.