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'My School Is Doing All They Can': How Colleges And Students Are Responding To Coronavirus

The more we know, the more we can protect ourselves and each other

By De Elizabeth

News about the newly identified coronavirus, COVID-19, is evolving rapidly, and if you feel overwhelmed by separating the facts from panic, you’re not alone. The virus was first reported in Wuhan, China, in early January, and people with the virus have since been identified in dozens of countries globally, including the United States. As the number of cases continue to grow, so does concern about how easily the virus seems to spread, especially among those who are most vulnerable to infection and complications.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned the public that “community spread” of COVID-19 is likely expected, adding in a February 25 press conference: “It's not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness.”

An inevitability like that can seem scary, particularly for people living in tightly knit communities, like a college campus. Some of the biggest U.S. universities have tens of thousands of students enrolled at a time, many of whom live in dorms with one or more roommates and attend large, lecture-style classes. Those circumstances raise some major questions: What would happen in the event of a campus COVID-19 outbreak? And, in the meantime, how should students keep themselves and others healthy?

Fortunately, many schools have already implemented steps to keep their communities safe and prepare for possible disruption to daily life. MTV News talked with infectious disease experts, as well as a few students, to learn how students can optimize their health, advocate for the wellbeing of others, and stay informed.

Let’s start with some basics.

On March 4, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that the number of global COVID-19 cases had exceeded 93,000, with over 100 confirmed cases in the U.S. At least 11 people in the U.S. have died as a result of COVID-19; 10 deaths occurred in Washington state, with the 11th in California. However, the CDC maintains that the risk of contracting COVID-19 in the U.S. still remains low.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can range from mild, cold-like symptoms to severe respiratory illness, including fever, a cough, and shortness of breath. The virus is mainly spread person-to-person, via respiratory droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. While experts say that most cases are not life-threatening, WHO reports that COVID-19 can be particularly harmful for elderly people, as well as those with pre-existing medical conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, or diabetes. The global mortality rate is currently 3.4% — higher than the seasonal flu but lower than other major viruses like SARS or ebola. However, scientists have noted that such data is not entirely conclusive, as it doesn’t account for infected people with minor or no symptoms who have not been tested (and would be expected to recover).

There are lots of ways to protect your health.

The CDC has published a list of everyday preventive actions that can help avoid the spread of COVID-19. If you can, stay home if you feel sick, avoid touching your face, avoid close contact with people who are sick, use a disinfectant on frequently touched household objects, and wash your hands thoroughly and often — 20 seconds at a time, with soap and water. (The CDC even has a full guide all about handwashing, as it is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of illness in general.)

Dr. Shira Doron, an epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, emphasizes that practicing frequent hand hygiene is among one of the most important things a person can do, especially after touching things in public. “Keeping your hands clean is important both for your own health and the health of others,” she adds.

And Dr. Emily Hyle, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and attending physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, adds that keeping your hands away from your face, however challenging that might be, is seriously key. “Try very hard to avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth,” she says, adding: “A good rule of thumb is to keep your hands below your shoulders.”

Additionally, the CDC and WHO have published extensive travel guides, reflecting the risk assessment for various parts of the world. Those guidelines shouldn’t come at the expense of basic common courtesy, though: No matter what the travel advisory might indicate, there is never an excuse to be racist or xenophobic.

While considering your own health is crucial, it’s just as essential to advocate for the health of those around you.

Dr. Hyle stresses the importance of staying home when feeling sick, even and especially if you aren’t typically vulnerable to infection yourself. For students, she suggests: “Consider talking in advance with teachers about how you might be able to still participate in class from home,” adding that it’s crucial to avoid close contact with elderly folks or anyone you know that’s immunosuppressed.

According to Dr. Doron, “a distance of six feet is ideal” if you aren’t able to avoid being in the same room with other people.

If you start feeling sick, and if you suspect you might have COVID-19, the CDC recommends you call ahead to your health care provider to determine if you should be tested for the virus. (Some states have implemented COVID-19 hotlines, but it’s important to remember that these phone numbers can quickly become overloaded.)

“It’s important to rest and stay hydrated — and to wash your hands frequently to avoid transmitting the virus to others, like roommates,” Dr. Hyle says, explaining that, until testing is becoming more widely available, it’s difficult to distinguish COVID-19 from other illnesses like the cold or the flu. “Many people will be able to stay at home to recover, but some might need to go to hospital for additional supportive care,” she adds. “Find out who you should call locally, such as student health services … especially if you develop fever or shortness of breath.”

And now, a note on those face masks.

The CDC does not recommend that healthy people purchase masks to protect themselves from COVID-19; however, masks can be beneficial to those who are already sick, and they are essential for health workers and caregivers. Last month, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome M. Adams even urged people via a tweet to stop buying face masks, noting that a shortage could pose a serious risk to the public. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently reported that the global supply of protective gear is rapidly depleting, adding at a media briefing on March 3: “We can’t stop COVID-19 without protecting our health workers.”

Colleges and universities are already springing into action.

Schools are urging students to follow the CDC’s recommendations for preventing infection, while also adding specific measures to prevent an outbreak on campus. University of Connecticut recently announced that they would be canceling certain study abroad programs, and the school has asked any student returning from such countries to comply with the CDC’s recommendation for a 14-day self-quarantine. Many institutions, like the University of Southern California and the University of Miami, have strongly cautioned students who might have plans to travel over spring break, while schools in some countries, like Italy and South Korea, have closed down entirely.

In an email to MTV News, a representative from Boston University (BU) noted that the school has put together a website to help students, faculty, and families stay informed amid the developing news. (Many other schools have done the same.) BU’s site includes several FAQ pages, covering topics like travel, study abroad, and the impact on campus life. The school also has a plan for if the outbreak intensifies, writing on their website: “We will continue to monitor the severity of the outbreak and the impact on our student community. Our hope is that courses will not be interrupted, but we are actively exploring the possibility of offering remote access to existing courses. The health and well-being of the community is our first priority, so if we reach a point where students cannot safely physically attend classes, course expectations would be adjusted accordingly.”

Nick Wasmundt, a third-year student at Colorado State University (CSU) in Fort Collins tells MTV News that students received official school emails about the virus. Like others, CSU also has an informative website with up-to-date facts about the virus.

But some faculty are taking extra safety measures, despite the fact that Colorado has not seen any positive cases of COVID-19 yet. “I had a professor email the class,” Wasmundt says. “As a precaution, he moved our class, which meets in a [traditional] classroom setting and a computer lab, to an online delivery style for the remainder of the semester. The professor stated that labs were an efficient way for viruses to spread, and he wanted to avoid that.” A spokesperson for CSU declined to comment, but directed MTV News to its planning websites.

Another thing schools want their students to know? COVID-19 is no excuse for racism.

In the wake of COVID-19, there have been multiple reports of racist and xenophobic behavior directed at Asian people, and some schools are taking steps to combat such actions on their own campuses. “In recent weeks, we’ve seen cases across the country and on one of our own campuses in which people of Asian descent have been mistreated,” Washington State University (WSU) wrote in a statement on their website. “This behavior is not acceptable. At WSU, we strive to cultivate and sustain welcoming and inclusive campus communities for all students, faculty and staff, and stand against discrimination, oppression and harassment.” MTV News has reached out to WSU for further details on how the school plans to combat such racism.

Similarly, UCLA has reminded its community: “We must not stigmatize anyone in our community based on national origin. Someone who has a cough or a fever does not necessarily have coronavirus.” The CDC has also published details about stigma and COVID-19, writing: “Stigma hurts everyone by creating more fear or anger towards ordinary people instead of the disease that is causing the problem.”

How are students feeling about all of this?

As a first year student at Western Washington University (WWU) in Bellingham, Siobhan Keenan is growing increasingly worried. While there aren’t any reported cases near her campus, she tells MTV News that she has friends and family living near Seattle and Federal Way, where positive cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed.

“It makes me very nervous,” she says. “I especially worry about friends who … catch things easily. I worry about my education — what are we all supposed to do if going to class becomes unsafe?” (WWU’s website notes that school officials are working on contingency plans in the event of a “potentially disruptive situation,” writing: “This includes … assessing readiness to conduct class activities online, should that be required, and ensuring students and employees who are ill can be properly supported so they can stay home and recover.”)

Even with plans in place, Siobhan finds it hard to quell her fears. “It makes me anxious for my friends and family across Washington, [especially] those who are just a few degrees of separation from someone sick,” she says. “I feel powerless because I’m a hundred miles away from them. I try to check in, stay updated, wash my hands, and keep healthy myself.”

Morgan C. Mullings, a senior at St. John’s University in Queens, NY,  feels similarly, telling MTV News she’s combatting her concerns by staying as informed as possible. “People take their safety for granted, and that can result in the virus spreading more,” she says, emphasizing the importance of sharing accurate information, rather than headlines seemingly preying on fear. “The only weapon I have to keep myself safe is knowledge, and I don't want anyone to take that away from me.”

Likewise, Wasmundt is trying to do his best with the facts available to him, noting that he’s been extra-conscious about hand washing. “Whenever I go into the office for work, I make sure to clean and sanitize my space before and after I leave,” he says. “I think my school is doing all they can do at this point. They've assembled a task force to keep track of what is happening, plan for various scenarios, and find a way to keep students healthy and safe.”

While the constant news cycle can be overwhelming, it’s important not to panic. 

“It’s a challenging time that can feel very uncertain,” Dr. Hyle says. “But we are learning more about COVID-19 every day — how best to test for it, treat it, and prevent it.”

Similarly, Dr. Doron wants people to remember that the current data — which is regularly updating — doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality. “In the early stages of an outbreak of a new pathogen, death rates often appear higher than they ultimately turn out to be,” she says. “Once you account for people with mild illness who don't get tested, those rates come down. The danger associated with this virus might end up being not much different from that of influenza, which is dangerous, but something we are accustomed to. There is no need to panic.”

It’s also OK to take a break from the news if you’re finding yourself feeling increasingly worried. “For anyone feeling anxious or overwhelmed, reach out to friends or family for support and to mental health services that are available on campus,” Dr. Hyle advises.

Ultimately, information and education is our best line of defense; the more we know, the more we can protect ourselves and each other. “There is a bit of fear in everyone’s mind,” Wasmundt says. “But I feel that we are all in this boat together.”