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Texas universities recall students, clean doorknobs as coronavirus safeguards

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While there are no known cases of the coronavirus at Texas colleges, the close living quarters on most campuses can present a unique challenge in controlling contagious diseases. Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

Texas universities say they are recalling students studying abroad, stockpiling supplies and sanitizing door handles and light fixtures every night, in response to the emerging coronavirus now spreading across several continents.

While there are no known cases of the coronavirus at Texas colleges, the close living quarters on most campuses can present a unique challenge in controlling contagious diseases. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued specific guidance for higher education institutions, urging them to “minimize disruption to teaching and learning and protect students and staff from social stigma and discrimination” — specifically anti-Asian sentiment fanned by fear of the virus, which was first detected in China.

Many schools have clamped down on travel, and repatriated students studying in China, South Korea and Italy, countries hard-hit by the virus, formally known as COVID-19. Students returning home from abroad are being asked to self-isolate for 14 days at their family house or in a hotel, and administrators are working overtime to keep them in comparable classes and reimburse any program fees from their time abroad. They’ve been asked to monitor and report any symptoms they experience.

On the state’s campuses, university officials said they haven’t noticed marked dips in attendance, or an influx of visits to school clinics. But, the CDC and universities are reminding people to wash their hands vigorously, cover their coughs and sneezes with a tissue and minimize contact with sick people.

At Trinity University in San Antonio, officials have begun prefacing on-campus events by encouraging attendees to fist bump rather than shake hands or hug.

“What’s changing for students is they have to think more specifically about ‘social distancing’ — which has become a new term in our vocabulary,” said Tess Coody-Anders, Trinity’s vice president for strategic communications. “What they do if they think they have a sick roommate or suitemate or they’re sick. I think it’s affecting them in their consciousness, but it’s not changing their daily activities at this point.”

The University of Houston is “sharing information on hygiene precautions on digital screens around campus,” as well as by email and encouraging students and employees to stay home if they’re sick, said spokesperson Shawn Lindsey. “Prevention continues to be the best protection.”

Much of the disruption in higher education has involved students and researchers abroad.

The efforts to recall students from overseas follows the CDC’s recommended travel restrictions, and come as authorities have confirmed at least 11 cases of the disease in Texas. Those individuals were brought to the San Antonio Lackland Air Force Base for quarantine from overseas. State officials have said the risk to Texans remains low and in-state colleges have not reported symptoms among their returning students.

One research employee at Rice University might have been exposed to the virus while abroad. The university has asked 17 people the employee came into contact with — including faculty, doctoral students and staff — to self-quarantine, but has not stopped classes. Local health officials consider the risk to the campus to be low, the school said. (A test result for the employee is expected by the end of the week.) Rice has suspended all university-sponsored spring break trips abroad, and university-sponsored faculty travel to certain countries.

Colleges began recalling students from China earlier this year. But more have since been asked to return from Italy — a popular study abroad destination — after the CDC added the country last week to its list of destinations that travelers should avoid. More recently, the agency has urged higher education institutions to consider postponing or canceling student foreign exchange programs “given the global outbreak.”

The University of Texas at San Antonio, which flew home the last of 71 students from Italy this week, is paying each a per diem during their isolation, and will cover the cost of campus housing and meal plans for the rest of the students’ semesters.

All asymptotic, they are at home or lodged in hotels, and can virtually attend their Italy classes during the two-week isolation. The university will pay for their transportation back to campus and continue the students' classes there.

“We wanted to make sure that they had the financial resources available so that if they needed food or meals delivered or things of that nature, that they would have the adequate financial resources to be able to do that,” said spokesperson Joe Izbrand.

The University of Texas at Austin is also transferring students in Italy out of the country, and told others this week that summer programs there would be indefinitely suspended.

“My whole summer was banking on this,” said UT-Austin sophomore Alex Allen, who was looking forward to applying her four years of high school Latin and two semesters of college Italian to a June program in Rome. She is now scrambling to apply for summer internships and find summer courses that offer a similar number of academic credits.

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that causes flu-like symptoms, including fever, a cough and shortness of breath. There’s currently no vaccine to prevent it, but researchers — including some at UT-Austin, Baylor College of Medicine and University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston — are racing to develop one.

College officials, like Coody-Anders at Trinity, say they are in a “mitigation” not containment mode. Many have emergency plans to prepare for pandemics or to keep their business and operations running in the event of natural disasters and other disturbances, like the spread of H1N1 in 2009.

“You have to think of everything,” said Coody-Anders. “If you had students that ... weren’t sick enough to be in a hospital and they needed to be at home and home for them is a residence hall, how do you get them food? Over-the-counter medications? How do you ensure that suitemates and roommates who are not sick are protected?”

“How many webcams would we need if faculty needed to teach classes remotely and X number of faculty are missing good solid webcams on their laptops?” she said. That’s “the level of detail we plan for.”

David Lakey, the vice chancellor for health affairs and chief medical officer at the University of Texas System, said many institutions have a pandemic plan they need to “dust [off] and take a look” at during major events like this.

“Are there ways to allow people to work from home, take classes at home, minimize the large congregations of people that get together?” said Lakey, an expert in disease prevention who was previously commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services. Health institutions — like the six in the UT System — “have to be ready to surge as needed, expand emergency room capacity, expand hospital capacity, be able to take care of a larger number of people under infection control.”

He said he’s heard concerns from the medical institutions about being able to stockpile several months’ worth of masks for patients and surgeons.

At Trinity, Coody-Anders said the university is making sure there is a sufficient supply of goods like food, hand sanitizer and specialized cleaning materials. They’ve asked their contracted cleaning crew to begin scrubbing down all surfaces every night, in accordance with recent guidance from the CDC.

Officials at Trinity are working with a few dozen international students from China who may be unable to return home for spring break or the summer. The university has also recalled students from China and Italy, and is working one-on-one with them to ensure their studies aren’t disrupted and that they’re not paying any more than they would for a semester in San Antonio.

Students were flown back from study abroad programs in China earlier this semester, screened at the airport and moved into on-campus dorms. Italy students were returned recently and placed in self-isolation at home, in accordance with updated CDC guidance, Coody-Anders said.

Texas State University is preparing for the possibility that campus operations might be disrupted.

“We have already begun to talk to faculty about developing alternative teaching strategies, so that if that were to happen we can continue our academic programs whether its online or via a video connection like Zoom,” said Emilio Carranco, a doctor and director of Texas State’s Student Health Center. “We're also starting to look at our large events for the spring, and develop contingency plans for what we would need to do for example if we couldn't have commencement in May.” Already, the university has created an on-campus isolation facility, increased the frequency of cleanings and moved away from self-service stations in the campus dining halls.

“This is a tough situation for us because we're trying so hard to balance safety and our students' desire to continue their educational programs,” Carranco said. The university has canceled study abroad programs in China this summer.

Other Texas universities have taken similar precautions.

The Texas A&M University System has barred nearly all institution-sponsored travel to countries with a “watch”-level risk of coronavirus and above. The system’s College Station flagship has canceled spring break trips to Italy and arranged for the 30 or so students and faculty affected to receive refunds. It’s also activated its emergency operations plan.

Texas Christian University has suspended its programs in China, recalled its students from Italy and is working with them to “minimize the impact on their academic process.” They have not canceled overseas summer programs.

The University of Houston has canceled study abroad programs to China, Italy and South Korea, and the half-dozen students in the latter two countries are being returned to the U.S.

University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio suspended a school trip to Italy and arranged for “private accommodation” for a person who self-reported flu-like symptoms to monitor themselves, following the CDC’s advice for handling low-risk illnesses. The San Antonio Metropolitan Health District said the person “has a very low health risk and COVID-19 testing is not required,” according to the school.

The University of Dallas has recalled students studying abroad in Rome, and said they will live with their families for the remainder of the semester, taking the courses they were enrolled in in Italy online.

Disclosure: The University of Houston, Rice University, the University of Texas at San Antonio, the University of Texas at Austin, Baylor Health Care System, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, the University of Texas System, the Texas A&M System, Texas Christian University, Texas State University and Trinity University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here