UM reacts to growing fears of possible coronavirus pandemic

Yadi Li watched in dismay as several reports of the coronavirus outbreak broadcasted across numerous television stations. Push notifications for updates surrounding the virus constantly appeared on her home screen. Instantly, fears for her family’s health and well-being began to manifest. But it was when Li learned that her hometown Wuhan, China, had gone into lockdown that her heart instantly dropped.

“The entire situation is heartbreaking,” said Li, a graduate student majoring in public relations. “To me, when I think of Wuhan, I think of family, cherry blossoms and Wuhan bean curd. But to the world, when they think of Wuhan, they think of the coronavirus. We are so much more than that. ”

The 2019 novel coronavirus is a virus identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers this a serious public health concern, the immediate health risk from a coronavirus to the general American public is considered low at this time.

Current symptoms reported for patients with coronavirus have included mild to severe respiratory illness with fever, cough and difficulty breathing. Currently, there is no vaccine available to protect against the coronavirus.

The United States also issued a level four travel advisory warning residents not to travel to China, adding that most commercial air carriers have reduced or suspended flights to and from the country.

“One impact from the virus is that some of my relatives can’t go back home to reunite with the rest of the family,” said Li. “It’s Chinese New Year right now, so traveling back home is on most of the minds of my relatives and others celebrating this holiday.”

Chinese New Year is one of the greatest movements to and from China each year.

All travelers arriving in the United States from China are being screened for symptoms of novel coronavirus at 20 U.S. ports of entry, including Miami International Airport.

Additional cases have been identified in a growing number of countries, including the United States, where five cases in travelers from Wuhan have been confirmed in five states: Arizona, California, Illinois, Massachusetts and Washington state.

Dr. Howard Anapol, director of the Student Health Service, said that the virus is spreading fast and will remain under close watch as cases begin to appear within the country.

“Human coronaviruses are common throughout the world and usually cause mild to moderate illness, including the common cold and pneumonia, although sometimes they can cause more severe respiratory symptoms,” Anapol said.

According to the CDC, the virus likely emerged from an animal source but now seems to be spreading from person to person. It is not yet clear how easily coronavirus spreads from person to person.

So far, at least 360 people have died and more than 17,000 have been infected in China while there’s been more than 170 confirmed cases across more than 20 countries.

June Dreyer is a professor of political science at the UM. She formerly served as Senior Far East Specialist at the Library of Congress and Asia adviser to the Chief of Naval Operations and Commissioner of the U.S. Economic and Security Review Commission established by the U.S. Congress.

Dreyer said that there have been two very serious disease outbreaks. One of which is HIV and the other, SARS. She said that in both cases, the Chinese government reacted by covering them up and pretending that they did not exist.

“This incurred a lot of criticism,” Dreyer said. “Particularly with SARS because it’s so lethal, and it spread very quickly. However, I think the Chinese government learned something from the SARS ordeal. So, when the coronavirus broke out, they really did react, although not fast, at least faster.”

Arnina Zeng, a junior majoring in health science, recently studied abroad in Hong Kong for the fall 2019 semester. Zeng said that after studying abroad, she better understands the conflict between citizens and the government.

“The criticism against the government continues to grow as they still have not closed borders with China and even allow free passage between Hong Kong and Zhuhai, China,” Zeng said.

Currently, there are no confirmed cases of the virus among members of the University of Miami community or in the state of Florida. UM Communications said in a statement, ”We do not believe that there is any immediate health risk to our campuses.”

However, in an act of precaution, UM Student Health Service and other university partners are closely monitoring the situation and are following guidelines from the CDC and the World Health Organization.

Julio Frenk, president of the University of Miami, said that the university is taking precautions to identify cases as early as possible should they occur among members of the community.

“In public health, preparation, anticipation and communication are all vital to preventing disease,” Frenk said. “While we do not believe there is any immediate health risk to our campuses from coronavirus, we are closely monitoring developments around the global outbreak.”

Students have presented various reactions towards the ongoing coronavirus developments and the possibility of a pandemic.

“As a Chinese student from Beijing, I am deeply worried about what will follow both nationally and internationally,” said Haolong Jia, a senior majoring in journalism. “I feel that UM health officials are handling the coronavirus matter effectively and keeping students educated on the virus.”

“I have a friend in Hong Kong who is taking several precautions to protect himself from the coronavirus,” said Zeng. “There’s now shortages of surgical masks and food due to the pandemic. However, at the home front, I believe that UM is doing a good job sending coronavirus updates and making resources accessible.”

Student Government president and senior majoring in communication studies Emily Gossett said that after her experience studying abroad in Asia, she’s deeply concerned about the spread of the coronavirus.

“I have a level of empathy having lived in China for some time,” Gossett said. “Being halfway around the world, I think it’s easy to not really let things like this get to you or to even feel the need to pay attention. But it’s definitely drawn my attention because of my connection to Hong Kong.”

The CDC recommends everyday preventive actions to help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses, including washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces.

“The University of Miami has significant resources and expertise on issues of health, and we are certainly bringing them to bear on the current situation,” Frenk said.

Anna Timmons contributed to the reporting of this story.