The outbreak of the coronavirus COVID-19 has spread from the pathogen’s epicenter in Wuhan, China, to several countries including Italy, Iran, South Korea and the United States.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of March 10, there were a total of 647 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 in the U.S. of those confirmed cases, 25 resulted in death.
Thirty five states and the District of Columbia have reported confirmed cases COVID-19 to the CDC. Although there are no confirmed cases in Alabama, three of the bordering states have reported confirmed cases of the virus. Although the closest confirmed cases to North Alabama are in Tennessee and Georgia, the COVID-19 outbreak has already impacted the University of North Alabama through its international students and students who study abroad.
“[It affects] our current students on campus because some of them are completing their study or finishing their degree, and they need to return, especially our Chinese students,” said Chunsheng Zhang, senior provost for international affairs. “There is no flight going back from China to [Alabama] until probably the end of April. But we are prepared to assist students in any way we can.”
Zhang said there is no urgent concern, but in the unlikely event that some international students may not be able to travel after they finish their study at UNA, then the International Affairs office is ready to help with their visas, paperwork or whatever needs to be done.
Although there is a deep concern in their native country, students from China are in contact with their families regularly.
“Their challenge is this – in China, you can’t go anywhere now during this season, they have to wear a mouth mask,” Zhang said. “We get all kinds of questions from students. ‘My parents insist I wear a mouth mask, but no one is wearing one here. What do I do?’ If a student chooses to wear [a mouth mask], we should respect that student’s individual right just like what clothes they chose to wear. Everything in life is about a good balance and respecting individual’s choices. Right now, I think overall [our Chinese students] are OK because they are communicating with their parents.”
For students studying abroad, the question is: Will they still be able to travel?
Zhang said that the university will make a decision to see what locations will be safe to continue the study abroad programs in May or June.
“We [had] two students out studying abroad,” Zhang said.
“One student came back from Italy, [which] is one of [the countries] impacted [by the coronavirus]. The student is at home. [She is] not on campus and our education coordinator is giving her advice on how to carry out things.
“The other student was actually on her way to South Korea. By the time CDC made the announcement and the program who sponsored canceled the program, the student was flying to South Korea and landed in Texas. Then, she was contacted and told that she needed to come back. [They were] not impacted by the coronavirus in that way, but it does impact their study abroad plans.”
Zhang said that these were the only two students that she is aware of who had to change their plans immediately due to the outbreak.
Still, the impact of the coronavirus outbreak is not limited to international students or those studying abroad this semester. It may also interfere with recruiting international students for the fall semester.
“We have about 200 students to arrive in the fall, a large number from China,” Zhang said. “We hope that by that time, the virus is being contained and that the USA government and China government will [announce] that it is safe to travel so students can continue with that. Our main goal is that students continue to feel welcomed to come to UNA as scheduled.”
UNA Health Services released information about the coronavirus to the university, including what it is, the risk and the symptoms. It also has a bulleted list of precautions to take to prevent the widespread spread of the virus. According to Health Services, individuals on campus may benefit from doing the following everyday actions: washing one’s hands for 20 seconds, covering one’s mouth when coughing or sneezing or simply, staying at home when sick.
“We all need to practice heightened personal hygiene and take measures to make sure we really wash our hands frequently,” Zhang said. “Make sure you don’t touch your face, use hand sanitizer and practice different ways of greeting each other [maybe] instead of handshakes, [we] could just bow or acknowledge because we don’t know.”
According to public health officials, a person can incubate COVID-19 for one to 14 days before they begin to show flu-like symptoms, such as fever or a cough.
“So [the university] is focusing on exercising what the health professional’s recommendations,” Zhang said. “The university has been monitoring hour by hour, day by day just to make sure all students and employees stay healthy.”
Zhang explained that whenever there is a global event, the international affairs office is working with all of its offices in China and other parts of the world. He said they want to make sure the students and the parents are reassured that there is no case of COVID-19 in Florence, Ala., and that also that the university has a system to respond to any urgency.
“From the president to the faculty and staff, it is all our duty to make sure we stay healthy, that we are exercising healthy work and life habits,” Zhang said. “So we want to make sure our international students feel comfortable, given this concern of the virus.”