Zi Ting Wang returned to the University of Minnesota two weeks ago after visiting family in Zhe Jiang, China, where her parents remain quarantined at home amid the coronavirus outbreak.
She arrived back at a campus just beginning to face the outbreak as it threatens to take root in this country. Some students have been seen wearing medical masks, and the university has placed sanitation stations around campus, offering free tissue, hand sanitizer and medical masks.
“My parents are always warning me to wash your hands frequently, don’t talk with anybody outside of the home and to just keep in touch,” Wang said.
Minnesota’s flagship university is among a growing number of higher education institutions across the country where health officials are balancing the need to inform their students about the rapidly spreading virus without exaggerating the threat and nudging their campuses toward hysteria.
The dilemma is particularly acute at the university, which is home to 3,000 Chinese students and 230 Chinese professors and staff who are constantly traveling back and forth to their home country.
The campus is not in panic mode over the virus, said Dave Golden, director of public health and communications for the U’s Boynton Health. His office is continually updating a health alert webpage as the virus spreads across the country.
The U suspended its study abroad programming in China for this spring semester and Golden has fielded a few inquiries from staff at the U wondering if an Asian student exhibiting signs of a cold or flu should be allowed in class. The answer is yes, he said.
The campus pharmacy has sold about 8,000 boxes of medical masks, with more on order, and students have picked clean the boxes of free masks at the campus sanitation stations. But the run on masks is not a fresh sign of panic.
Wang said she knows students who have bought them to send to family and friends in China, where there are widespread shortages. So far China has reported 24,500 confirmed cases of coronavirus and nearly 500 deaths.
Jasmine Hak, 22, of Chanhassen, who’s of Chinese and Cambodian heritage, said her concerns are more about the spread of suspicion or mistrust of Asians rather than the virus itself. She said the virus is “not an excuse to be racist.”
U professor Erika Lee said coronavirus is sparking widespread xenophobia directed toward Asians. Though Lee has not experienced this personally, she’s read reports from across the country about Asian students being viewed with suspicion. A professor at the University of Connecticut is chronicling such accounts and news reports.
“Targeting Asian or Asian-appearing individuals when they cough and accusing them of being sick and them spreading viruses, there’s a real racial layering that’s happening with that behavior. And what I’ve been helping to illustrate is just how deep rooted the idea is that immigrants are carriers of dangerous diseases,” Lee said.
Joan Brzezinski, executive director of the UMN China Center, said “viruses don’t discriminate — they will attack and hurt anyone.”
College and university campuses are particularly prone to the rapid spread of viruses and other illnesses. Tight quarters where students learn, gather and recreate allows illness to spread rapidly. For their part, college dorms can quickly magnify an outbreak.
The University of Massachusetts Boston and Arizona State University each have a confirmed case of coronavirus, fueling fears and emergency responses.
Two students from Wuhan at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville were placed in special on-campus housing, as reported by the New York Times, but the university has since announced the 14-day incubation period set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had passed.
So far, the virus has not hit Minnesota, where three suspected cases of coronavirus all tested negative. In the U.S., there are 12 confirmed cases and 76 pending.
A new case was confirmed in neighboring Wisconsin at the UW Health Hospital. It’s unknown if the patient diagnosed with the novel virus last week is a student or employee of UW-Madison.
The patient recently returned from Beijing after traveling to the virus’ country of origin for the Chinese New Year. Many international students, including those at the U Twin Cities campus, had similar travel plans.
Golden, Boynton’s spokesman, said the University of Minnesota’s response to the coronavirus is much more muted than the last big outbreak, influenza H1N1, in 2009. When H1N1 hit, he said hundreds of U students were quarantined in dorms.
With the coronavirus, Golden said, a couple of them were placed in isolation rooms at Boynton for screening as a precautionary measure. Students with flu-like symptoms who recently traveled to China and have a cough or fever are being asked to come into Boynton for screening.
Meanwhile, health officials are carefully measuring their response to the coronavirus amid a looming threat from a far more common and dangerous virus with similar symptoms. So far this flu season, the number of influenza-related deaths in Minnesota has reached 42.
Brzezinski said there has been a lot of calming coronavirus communication on campus.
“Everyone here is on top of anticipating what messages need to go out so people feel comfortable and informed,” she said.
Kim Hyatt • 612-673-4751