The 2019-nCoV, or coronavirus, is what’s known as an emerging infection. This means that it’s different than what we’ve seen before, and we don’t know much about it. That can be troubling for some people. It can be scary for parents or students to hear news stories about widespread infection, particularly when the infection may have severe outcomes. Right now, only a small portion of infected persons have serious illness.
Since the 2019-nCoV is in the same family of viruses as SARS, people might worry that a similar global pandemic might occur. A pandemic is an ongoing outbreak that occurs on two or more continents. Public health officials are actively taking measures to minimize disease spread. Although the virus has spread to other countries, including the United States, the illness is not widespread outside of China.
There is concern about disease spread, but so far, all U.S. cases have been travel-related: Only people who have recently traveled to China or have had close contact with infected people are at high risk. We don’t know much about how easily the virus spreads, but usually, people without symptoms are not the primary source for disease transmission.
It is important to note that only people who have traveled to China within the past 14 days are at risk of becoming sick. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “All persons in the U.S.—including those of Asian descent—who have not traveled to China or been in contact with someone with a confirmed or suspected nCoV case in the last 14 days are at low risk of becoming sick.”
It is essential that we communicate information that is informative without being unnecessarily inflammatory. Communicating information about illness protocols, preventative measures and illness facts is helpful without being overwhelming.
Are our students at risk? In the U.S., risk depends entirely on exposure. For most students on campus, who are unlikely to be exposed to this virus, the immediate health risk is low at this time. But communication with students and parents is key for college and university officials.
What messaging is important for parents?
As higher ed institution officials, it is essential that we communicate information that is informative without being unnecessarily inflammatory. Communicating information about illness protocols, preventative measures and illness facts is helpful without being overwhelming.
Read: Contagious on campus
It is also important to put the coronavirus in context. Reminding parents that although a new viral outbreak has occurred, a greater risk to our students is the risk of influenza (the flu). Taking measures to avoid exposure will reduce the risk of all illness.
What steps can be taken to protect our students?
The coronavirus, like all respiratory infections, is best prevented by limiting exposure and practicing good hygiene during cold and flu season. As officials, we can reduce the spread of flu and other respiratory illness by taking the following steps:
- Encourage students to frequently wash their hands. Wash with soap and water for at least 20 seconds—especially after using the bathroom, preparing or eating food, or after coughing or sneezing. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Encourage students and faculty to contact a medical professional and stay at home if they are feeling sick to avoid spreading illness to others.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick. Make sure there is a procedure to separate sick students and staff from others.
- Teach and encourage the right way to cover a cough. Cover your cough with a bent arm or sneeze with a tissue; then throw the tissue in the garbage.
- Develop and implement an illness outbreak plan within your institution. This can be for the flu, coronavirus or any other illness.
- Implement a routine facility cleaning plan. Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces following the CDC’s guidelines for schools.
For more resources, see the CDC’s Guidance for School Administrators to Help Reduce the Spread of Seasonal Influenza in K-12 Schools and the CDC’s 2019 Novel Coronavirus page.
Jacqueline Vernarelli is the director of research education and assistant professor of public health at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, and Sofia Pendley is clinical assistant professor of public health at Sacred Heart.