Education

Iowa State bringing home students, barring travel to China amid coronavirus fears

University of Iowa urging communication, discouraging travel

Map highlights areas with cases of the new coronavirus. (Associated Press)
Map highlights areas with cases of the new coronavirus. (Associated Press)

IOWA CITY — Iowa State University and the University of Iowa — which host thousands of international students from China, send faculty and students to Asia for business reasons, and have study abroad programs across the region — are taking measures to keep a deadly coronavirus from their campuses.

Iowa State is working to bring home three students studying abroad in China, and ISU President Wendy Wintersteen this week said her institution is “prohibiting student and employee business travel to China until travel is deemed safe.”

That decision — which administrators said they made after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health notice to avoid non-essential travel to China — affected at least three ISU employees who had planned trips to China this semester.

Although the University of Iowa has not specifically barred employee business travel there, UI International Programs Dean Russell Ganim said, “We are strongly discouraging any travel to China.”

The World Health Organization on Wednesday reported 6,065 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus strain that had not previously been identified in humans and causes symptoms like fever, cough, shortness of breath, or possibly pneumonia, kidney failure, or even death.

Of the 6,000-plus cases globally, 5,997 were in China — plus another 9,239 suspected cases there. About 70 cases have been confirmed outside China in 15 countries — including the United States. The CDC on Wednesday reported five confirmed cases in the United States, with another 92 tests pending.

No cases have been reported in Iowa, although Illinois has confirmed cases.

Regarding study abroad pursuits, four Iowa State students are enrolled in programs in China for the spring semester, and the ISU international risk analyst is working with three to return to the United States. The fourth had not yet left for China.

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No UI students currently are in China, as study abroad providers canceled programming for the spring semester, according to Ganim.

Although one UI student was enrolled in a yearlong program at Shandong University in Jinan, China — nine hours north of the virus’ epicenter — he was home between semesters and is not returning.

“We have let him know that he won’t be able to return for the spring semester,” Ganim said.

The University of Northern Iowa did not provide The Gazette with any coronavirus communication to campus, and it has not posted anything on its International Programs or communications webpages.

The University of Iowa, like Iowa State, has sent communication to faculty, staff, and students — and specifically those from the Hubei Province at the heart of the outbreak — urging anyone who’s traveled to the province’s capital within the last two weeks to contact Student Health if they feel sick with a fever, cough or trouble breathing.

“All medical costs will be covered, and your privacy will be maintained,” according to the UI communication.

UI officials did not disclose how many calls the campus has received from concerned travelers, but a spokeswoman said the university is “actively engaging with individuals known to have traveled to China during the outbreak to provide additional information, guidance, and support.”

Since Iowa State’s coronavirus communication, fewer than 10 employees and students have contacted the Office of Risk Management with questions about recent travel to the area, according to ISU spokeswoman Angie Hunt. None are symptomatic.

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Additionally, the UI Graduate College received notice that Chinese governments had labeled the outbreak a “level one public health emergency” and test centers canceled all exams, including the GRE and GMAT, for the rest of January and February.

The UI is offering aid to international applicants who might now struggle to meet application requirements and deadlines.

Both Iowa State and the UI have included in their campus communications suggestions for limiting risk — including general good hygiene like hand washing.

Iowa State President Wintersteen, in her campus message, also warned about the spread of misinformation.

“There are many rumors circulating on social media about the coronavirus outbreak,” she wrote. “Before you share any information, consider if it is coming from a reputable source.”

Wintersteen urged support and care for “our colleagues and students from China who may be concerned for family and friends in areas significantly affected by the outbreak.”

International enrollment recently has plummeted across Iowa’s public universities — dropping more than 15 percent in one year — largely due to a massive decline in students from China, which this fall was down 44 percent from its peak in Fall 2015.

But Chinese students still account for a majority of the regent universities’ international enrollment, with a combined 2,477 this fall, compared with the next closest country — India — at 793 students, according to a recent Board of Regents report.

UIHC READY TO HANDLE ANY CASES

Preparations look different on the UI Hospitals and Clinics campus, which has been identified as a treatment center capable of handling high-consequence pathogens, and in 2014 was named Iowa’s only Ebola treatment center.

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Precautions for the 850-bed hospital and academic medical center take many forms and involve many layers, which are always in place, according to Jorge Salinas, hospital epidemiologist for UIHC.

Protocols aimed at preventing the spread of infections — from flu to any other contagion — start with early identification, Salinas said, and UIHC has clinical support tools that allow it to screen every person who enters its system for information on their symptoms and travel history.

“Anyone who has been to China and has fever and cough, we are in conversation with the Iowa Department of Public Health,” he said. “If they require admission, we use our equipment to prevent transmission.”

Although the hospital has seen some patients who’ve returned from China and reported fever or a sore throat or something else, they all tested positive for another illness or fell outside the definition warranting further testing.

“We have had close calls,” he said. “But nobody who has fully met the definition or that we couldn’t find an alternative explanation.”

In that UIHC is known for its epidemiology prowess, and because the coronavirus appears no more contagious than other respiratory viruses, Salinas said the community and state should feel secure in the hospital’s ability to handle any cases — should they present locally.

“Absolutely, we are always prepared to serve our community,” he said. “If some patient was found in our community, I want the public to feel reassured that we have capacity to deal with it.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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