As students begin packing their bags for spring break travel, the University is preparing to combat any cases of coronavirus that may hit West Virginia.
“Everybody can get infected. Kids, young adults [and] elderly,” said Ivan Martinez, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Cell Biology at WVU.
WVU has already canceled 13 faculty-led spring break trips and two summer study abroad trips. However, students going abroad independently are still at risk of contracting the disease. Three students studying abroad this semester in Italy have also made the decision to return home.
WVU had originally planned trips to Honduras, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Czechia and other areas. Any domestic trips have not been impacted.
Henry Oliver, WVU director of global advancement, said as access to public places and infrastructure has become a growing challenge. He said the University is concerned it would not be able to deliver the experiences it wants to for its students.
“If you look at examples like the Louvre is closed,” Oliver said.
He said entering certain countries like Italy are also becoming increasingly difficult to enter, with multiple U.S. airlines restricting travel.
Oliver said with spring break travel less than two weeks away, the University is working to ensure no students will be financially liable for the situation.
He said any students who had registered for the program will be fully-refunded as the University works to cancel flights and other travel bookings.
John Bolt, WVU communications senior executive director, said the financial impact this will have on the University is still being calculated.
Martinez said coronavirus is transmitted by person-to-person contact. Through sneezing and coughing, microscopic pieces of the virus can be left around that can infect other people.
Martinez said transmission of the disease often occurs when someone rubs their eyes or touches food and puts it in their mouth.
Coming into contact with the virus does not mean someone will immediately feel symptoms of the virus. While this may sound like a good thing, Martinez said it is actually what makes the virus so dangerous.
“The problem with that is exactly that,” Martinez said. “If you are not feeling sick, you still go to work, you still go to school. You don’t realize that you are actually carrying the disease and infecting other people.”
Oliver said this was one of the main reasons the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged universities to cancel spring break trips.
He said one of the biggest dangers the virus poses to travelers is the length of spring break is shorter than the time needed to show symptoms. If any students that return to campus have contracted the disease, they will not know until weeks after coming back.
Until a few days ago, the CDC only tested patients from China and Italy for coronavirus. Now, anyone suspected to carry the virus in the United States can be tested.
“That means that we’re probably going to see, in the next couple of days, an increased number of people [testing] positive for the virus,” Martinez said. “It’s not that suddenly the virus is spreading around. It’s mostly because the virus [has] probably already spread.”
As of right now, there is no known cure for the virus. Martinez said there are several companies and universities working to develop a vaccine.
“We do not know how this virus is going to behave because it’s the first time it’s in humans,” Martinez said. “Hopefully, we will potentially have a vaccine in a year from now.”
While this strain of the virus has not been seen before, it is not the first time coronavirus has been a problem. In the past, he said deadlier outbreaks of the virus have occurred.
“SARS was a different type of coronavirus that came out from China in 2003. That one was actually more deadly than the one we have now,” Martinez said. “And MERS; it’s another one that started in Saudi Arabia that was even more deadly.”
Martinez believes that the likelihood of the virus infecting Morgantown is still low. However, hospitals and the University are still working to ensure students and community members can stay healthy.
“One way or another, we were able to contain it,” Martinez said.
Oliver said WVU will continue to monitor upcoming summer abroad programs.
In a panel discussion with students on Tuesday, WVU President E. Gordon Gee said the University is well prepared if the coronavirus spreads to WVU.
“We want to be very well-prepared, but we also don’t want to panic,” Gee said.
Gee said J. W. Ruby Memorial Hospital has been an asset in ensuring the University is prepared if the coronavirus makes its way into West Virginia.
Clay Marsh, vice president and executive dean for health sciences, said no cases have been reported in West Virginia. He said the best practices are avoiding touching your face, washing hands frequently, and, if students are feeling ill, they should stay home.
Gee said the University is working to adjust its attendance policy to ensure the coronavirus as well as other illnesses are not spread between students.