In response to increasing cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, Northern Arizona University is making changes abroad and in Flagstaff, a location local experts say is not immune to the virus.
The university’s annual spring forum held Tuesday was shifted from a presentation on the status of the school to its preparedness efforts regarding the virus, presented by a panel of university leaders and partner organizations including Coconino County, Northern Arizona Healthcare and the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen).
According to County Epidemiologist Matthew Maurer, there are no current or suspected cases of COVID-19 in Coconino County.
Like other local organizations, NAU has a task force in Flagstaff monitoring the outbreak and creating emergency plans for its Mountain Campus. Staff are working to increase cleaning efforts, refill all hand sanitizing stations and post informational materials in residence halls and around campus. Faculty have been asked to transfer class material to Blackboard, the university’s online learning system, in case classes need to be moved online.
In a letter to the campus community Monday, NAU President Rita Cheng announced NAU has required all students studying abroad in China, South Korea and Italy to return to the U.S., following level 3 travel advisories from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. State Department.
A level 3 travel advisory suggests potential visitors “reconsider travel.” China was escalated to a level 4 — “do not travel” — on Feb. 2.
Daniel Palm, Associate Vice President of NAU’s Center for International Education (CIE), said during the forum that all eight NAU students in China had left the country by Feb. 4, transferring to other international schools or online programs. All seven students in South Korea are planning to return to the U.S. in the next few days and one student has already returned from Italy.
“It is important to note that, at this point, the majority of NAU students returning to the United States from Italy, South Korea and China are not returning to Flagstaff, but choosing to either study abroad in another location or returning to their homes in other U.S. cities,” Palm said. “Students are being provided educational options online or during the coming summer session to assist them in staying on track to a timely completion of their NAU degree.”
Only one student returning from China was required to self-quarantine upon returning to their home in the U.S. on Feb. 5, CIE officials said in an email to the Arizona Daily Sun. The student is now in good health.
Some NAU students whose international programs were suspended were given funds by their specific study abroad program for return flights to the U.S. For those who were not, NAU provided up to $500 for a change fee or new ticket. Individual programs also refunded students’ tuitions and fees, the email said. For programs where students pay tuition to NAU instead of to their host school, officials said students would likely not have to pay any additional educational costs to transfer to a different program.
Arizona State University and the University of Arizona have similarly suspended all university-related travel to China, South Korea and Italy. UA has also restricted travel to Iran because of an outbreak there.
As of Feb. 21, the only confirmed Arizona COVID-19 case — a male with ties to ASU who had recently traveled to Wuhan, China — had recovered and was released from isolation, ASU reported.
Palm said Tuesday the NAU team is currently evaluating NAU-sponsored spring break trips to locations including Japan, Ecuador and Costa Rica. More information on the status of summer trips is expected to be released within the next two weeks.
“[We’re] really doing our best to delay as long as possible to make those decisions to be considerate not only of the finances of students, but also the possibility of hopefully allowing those experiences to go forward when possible,” Palm said.
To prevent a more prevalent but similar illness to COVID-19, throughout the forum officials begged attendees to get their flu shot. They agreed the new virus does pose a threat to Flagstaff, though.
“Right now, it’s kind of hard to set the odds, but I personally think we’re going to have it in Flagstaff and so we need to be ready for that,” said Paul Keim, executive director of NAU’s Pathogen and Microbiome Institute and Regents’ Professor of Biological Sciences.
Keim said stopping COVID-19 would require either the majority of the world’s population to be infected and develop an immunity or the creation of a vaccine, which he expects is still a year from being finalized.
“The vaccine can become very important, but we need to slow the pandemic down in order for us to get those 12 months, 18 months, to get that vaccine developed,” Keim said.
State officials expressed a similar expectation of more COVID-19 cases closer to home in a briefing Monday by Governor Doug Ducey and Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS), who said more cases can be expected because the criteria for testing has been expanded by CDC. The statewide risk is still low, though.
“I want to assure everyone that the public health system in Arizona is well-prepared to respond to the spread of COVID-19 in Arizona,” Christ said, noting ADHS can now test up to 450 samples a day.
CDC advises the public to take preventative actions, such as covering the nose and mouth and washing hands often, to stop the spread of germs.
During the forum, panelists advised attendees not to purchase masks unless they are sick.
“A surgical mask is going to give you peace of mind, but it’s not going to protect you, and if you are going to go on Amazon and buy 95 masks, we’re going to run out, so we want to keep those for healthcare workers,” said Joel Terriquez, the Medical Director for Infection Prevention at Northern Arizona Healthcare.
As the situation with the virus continues to change, Dave Engelthaler, director of TGen North, encouraged forum attendees to rely on CDC, World Health Organization and other credible sources to avoid spreading misinformation related to COVID-19.
“Unlike coronavirus right now, we can vaccinate against fear,” he said.
TGen has created a test that could rapidly diagnose coronavirus. Though still awaiting approval, Engelthaler said as early as the end of the week, TGen could begin assisting with community screenings and in a few weeks, it could begin to help hospitals with their testing.
Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (928) 556-2253.
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