There is something that’s changed significantly in our society since other pandemics such as SARS or the H5N1 bird flu.
In the last decade, communities have experienced a heavy influx of connectivity, may that be through physical traveling, digital communication or commerce within global workplaces. This factor is what makes the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, of unique concern. In addition to the obvious biomedical strain, the feasibility of quarantining entire communities, cities and even countries is still up in the air.
However, the one thing we can be sure of is that the virus is coming, and we’ve gotten past the point of hoping to contain it completely. North Carolina reported its first confirmed case this week. The individual is currently in home isolation after visiting a Seattle nursing home linked to seven coronavirus-related deaths. Although the individual traveled through Raleigh-Durham International Airport,Wake County Division of Public Health Director Chris Kippes said there’s “no reason for the public to panic."
And for the most part, the public safety officials are right. The global mortality rate for COVID-19 is only 3.4 percent, and that number is expected to drop significantly as the number of infected individuals increase. The virus is known to present a much higher risk to older populations with underlying health conditions, whose immune systems may not be able to handle the virus.
But what is UNC’s responsibility as a public institution in implementing restrictions in response to the pandemic? The University has already expanded travel restrictions on non-essential University travel, including the cancellation of spring 2020 study abroad programs in affected locations, such as Italy, China and South Korea. This decision was made as a direct result of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s travel warnings, but many of the study abroad cases are still currently under individual review.
However, with the first case in North Carolina and the increase in community-spread cases across the United States, the administration has begun looking toward handling cases on campus. It becomes a larger concern for the administration knowing that a large proportion of the campus population has plans to travel extensively over spring break, furthering the chances of coronavirus spreading rapidly following the return of students in mid-March.
The University has a variety of options in this situation, with much of them weighing on the administration maintaining effective communication between faculty, students and employees. Faculty must prepare to move portions of curriculum online, residence halls must gear up for potential quarantines and administration must be ready to handle patients on campus without subjecting other individuals to viral transmission.
Meanwhile, students can do their part by:
- Regularly washing their hands with microbial soap
- Staying home while sick and avoiding unnecessary travel to risk countries and states as outlined by the CDC
- Staying informed; research on the virus is currently in full swing and new guidelines for protecting yourself against COVID-19 are being released every day