CORONAVIRUS

Eastern Iowa taking coronavirus precautions

Universities canceling some study abroad programs

Jun Yang (from left) of Cedar Rapids, Yu Feng of Marion and Hua Zhou of Cedar Rapids prepare dough for dumpling wrappers
Jun Yang (from left) of Cedar Rapids, Yu Feng of Marion and Hua Zhou of Cedar Rapids prepare dough for dumpling wrappers Jan. 24 during preparations for a Lunar New Year celebration at the Chinese Church of Iowa City in North Liberty. Many in the church’s congregation are participating in a 40-day prayerful fast for the spreading coronavirus. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

The parents of Iowa City resident Min Xu like to read. They like to watch TV. They used to like to take walks. But since their community of Wuhan in China became ground zero for the novel coronavirus — now labeled COVID-19 — they’ve been trapped indoors.

“They’re not allowed to go out of their door,” Xu told The Gazette through Jian-Lou Xu, a pastor at the Chinese Church of Iowa City, who translated for her. “That’s a regulation.”

Min Xu — who was born and raised in Wuhan and came to Iowa City six years ago with her husband, a visiting scholar in the University of Iowa’s School of Music — stays in daily touch with her parents over WeChat, a Chinese messaging app.

Coronavirus FAQ

What is COVID-19?The 2019 novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, is a new respiratory virus first identified in Wuhan, China, in December. It is the most recently discovered member of a large family of coronaviruses.

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So does Lonicera Jiang, 39, of Coralville, whose family in the south of China also so far has avoided contracting the virus. They, too, have not left their apartment there in over a month.

Jiang has taught her parents to order groceries online, and she’s done it for them from here. Xu, too, said her parents have avoided leaving their apartment by ordering in food, which arrives at their apartment from a carrier clad in full protective gear.

Both pray regularly for their loved ones’ safety, which Jian-Lu Xu said is a central concern for many of his congregants worried about family and friends back home. He noted many in his congregation are participating in a 40-day prayerful fast for the spreading virus.

“One church member, his brother got the coronavirus and was lucky, he was treated and healed,” he said.

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Although Min Xu’s parents have escaped the virus, many in their province of Hubei have become ill. The World Health Organization reported nearly 65,600 confirmed cases and more than 2,600 deaths there as of Thursday.

As the virus continues to spread across China and to different countries, including the United States, the local response is ramping up — from Iowa’s universities, with robust international populations and students studying abroad, to local hospitals and health care providers on the front lines of detection and prevention.

The Iowa Department of Public Health is monitoring 12 asymptomatic people for COVID-19 and has completed monitoring for 30. Tests for the virus in two Iowans came back negative.

Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a case in a California resident who didn’t recently travel overseas or have any other known exposure, potentially spawning a major shift in how the disease spreads.

‘Able to handle this’

In a briefing to lawmakers last week, Iowa’s top public health official reassured state leaders that while the risk in Iowa is low, her department is prepared for any change in the outbreak.

“Any time we have the emergence of a new virus that’s able to infect people, this is a serious public health concern,” Caitlin Pedati, state epidemiologist and medical director of the Iowa Department of Public Health, said Wednesday. “But I want to emphasize this is precisely the kind of concern that the state works with federal and local partners to prepare for.”

The UI Hospitals and Clinics — with its esteemed epidemiology program — declined to provide an updated number of patients who’ve gone through its screening process after traveling to China and exhibiting flu-like symptoms. Last month, UI Health Care Vice President Brooks Jackson told the Board of Regents the UI was monitoring seven travelers from China.

UIHC last week issued a staff request that “only essential members of the health care team enter the rooms of patients who are in isolation precautions.” Those rooms, according to the UIHC communication, have been marked with flyers carrying the message “STOP.” This is an effort to help the hospital conserve respirators, gowns, masks and other personal protective equipment.

“Our supply of PPE is currently adequate, but the global demand for PPE is rising due to the outbreak of the 2019 novel coronavirus and shortages are expected,” according to UIHC. “Conserving our PPE is essential to helping us prepare.”

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Additional UIHC preparations include daily Bio Emergency Response Team meetings and a patient screening process to spot anyone who presents with relevant symptoms and has traveled to or from China recently.

Patients identified as at-risk are given a surgical mask, moved to a private airborne-isolation room and brought under the purview of hospital epidemiologists.

“At this time,” spokeswoman Molly Rossiter said, “if anyone were to present with COVID-19 symptoms, they would be treated on an outpatient basis and would self-isolate at home, unless their symptoms required hospitalization.”

Many disease monitoring procedures now in play already have been in place across the local and county public health departments and centers for some time, according to said Heather Meador, Linn County Public Health clinical services branch supervisor.

“Yes it’s a new novel coronavirus, but a lot of the processes are very much the same,” said Sam Jarvis, community health manager at Johnson County Public Health.

In addition to frequent conversations with its federal counterpart, the Iowa Department of Public Health is in regular contact with county public health agencies, which are working with local hospitals to prepare for a potential case in their jurisdiction. Like UIHC, Cedar Rapids hospitals reported procedures to screen at-risk patients.

Dustin Arnold, chief medical officers of UnityPoint Health-Cedar Rapids, stressed necessary infrastructure is in place at his facility.

“I feel very comfortable that we’re able to handle this.”

Although UIHC is not currently authorized as a Food and Drug Administration emergency use testing site for coronavirus, the UI-based State Hygienic Laboratory now is able to perform COVID-19 tests, according to Rossiter.

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“Most large hospitals will eventually be able to test using commercially available testing platforms, but the timing of this is dependent upon the FDA and other federal agencies,” she said.

Higher ed impact

In that Iowa’s public universities have large international populations and global academic reach, they, too, are responding with frequent communication, cancellations and warnings.

The UI, for example, has canceled its study abroad programs in China for the spring and summer semesters and in South Korea for this spring. Administrators are undecided so far about summer programming in South Korea.

The cancellations affected five students enrolled in China programming in the spring; 19 signed up for China in the summer and four enrolled for South Korea in the spring. Another five could be affected if the summer session in South Korea is canceled.

The UI is working to determine the next steps for two students who remain in South Korea, helping them either return home or transfer to another study abroad program. Among other countries with confirmed cases of the virus, the UI has 152 students in Italy and one in Japan.

“The UI will continue to monitor reports and recommendations from national and regional health agencies, and is taking protective actions to protect and support its faculty, staff, and students,” said Haley Bruce, a UI spokeswoman.

Iowa State University also has pulled its students studying in China, returning them to the United States or moving them to other programs abroad. ISU-sponsored travel to China is barred.

The University of Northern Iowa in January restricted student and employee travel to the Asian nation.

“We’ve also been in close contact with our international students living here, providing them with advice and support as needed,” according to UNI spokesman Steve Schmadeke.

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International student enrollment already was dropping on Iowa campuses, and one national expert said concerns about the virus now could deepen the implications for higher ed.

“I think it’s going to have a substantial impact,” said former Brandeis University president and secretary of the Phi Beta Kappa Society Frederick M. Lawrence, predicting more study abroad cancellations on the horizon.

Iowa’s public universities have flagged economics overseas and the political climate as tied to decreases in international enrollment. Lawrence warned schools should weigh this outbreak in their planning for the upcoming academic year.

“What happens if the administration reacts in broad panic mode and says no more flights from China or Korea?” Lawrence asked, posing the prospect of enrollment from those most reliable countries dwindling.

“That’s a major financial hit in net revenue,” he said. “They should be thinking about that now, as they put together their budget.”

None of Iowa’s public universities answered questions from The Gazette about the virus’ potential impact on enrollment and whether they’re planning for potential fallout.

“We’re not going to speculate about what that may mean for enrollment in the fall,” said UI spokeswoman Bruce.

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

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