Texas A&M University-San Antonio and the A&M System have taken precautionary steps — including canceling A&M-San Antonio’s alternative spring break trip next week — to address concerns about the new coronavirus.
The virus is the main cause of several respiratory diseases, particularly COVID-19, a disease that displays symptoms of fever, coughing and trouble breathing.
University and system officials have released notices about foreign travel to countries with high risk of infection, the appropriate medical responses in case of infection and hygiene practices that can prevent the spread of the disease.
“We understand the continued spread of the virus is generating concern and uncertainty for many,” Rita Arredondo, risk and compliance coordinator at A&M-San Antonio, wrote in an email March 3 to faculty and staff.
A&M-San Antonio has not had any confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the email.
Due to a non-essential travel ban instituted by the A&M System, the Mays Center canceled plans for Jaguar Alternative Break: Spring 2020, a volunteer opportunity for students.
Nine students were scheduled to go to the commonwealth of Dominica, a small island in the Eastern Carribean, where they would volunteer at a special-needs school.
“Overall I’m really sad that it was canceled,” Dr. Edwin Blanton, executive director of the Mays Center, said. “We had not only a volunteer opportunity, we had a cross-cultural opportunity, we had guest speakers lined up, and really a very robust short-term study abroad opportunity to allow us to do this.”
Students were required to pay $1,000, although some were sponsored to go on the trip. All funds will be reimbursed.
“My first reaction is one of sadness and disappointment, but also understanding that the coronavirus outbreak is something that’s very serious,” Blanton said.
Campus launches COVID-19 group; system discourages foreign travel
The university activated a COVID-19 working group March 2, Jeanette De Diemar, vice president of advancement and external relations, said in an interview March 6.
The group has been meeting daily. It is composed of representatives from across campus, including students as well as faculty and staff from academics, information technology, risk management, public safety, facilities, human resources and communications.
“You can see how those are all interwoven, everything from ensuring that the right information is communicated at the right time to help our community, to understand what resources are there as the university navigates through the virus, as well as our partnership and the information that we receive from the A&M system as well as public health officials and safety officials,” De Diemar said.
She said the university also launched a website: tamusa.edu/coronavirus.
New foreign travel restrictions were issued March 2 to protect students, faculty and staff within the Texas A&M University System, as foreign travel has been strongly discouraged due to the COVID-19 global outbreak.
The A&M System has also prohibited payment for system-related travel to countries with a level 1 or greater risk level as identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those who visit a level 1 or higher risk country should report all personal international travel to the university. It is also necessary to arrange return travel as soon as possible.
A&M System guidelines advise students, faculty and staff traveling from countries with risk levels of 2 and 3 to self-isolate off-campus for a 14-day period before returning to school or work. If unable to do so, students must contact their university.
- Warning Level 3 (avoid nonessential travel): South Korea, China, Italy and Iran
- Alert Level 2 (practice enhanced precautions): Japan
- Watch Level 1 (practice usual precautions): Hong Kong
“We have no greater responsibility than to promote the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff,” John Sharp, Chancellor of the A&M System, wrote in a letter to university presidents and agency directors. “We also are responsible for promoting public health, especially during this period of global uncertainty.”
Faculty member shares personal insight
Dr. Mu Hu, an associate professor of communication at A&M-San Antonio, described how the coronavirus is affecting communities in China.
Hu’s hometown is Hefei, the capital of Anhui Province in eastern China.
Even though Hu now lives and teaches in the United States, he still visits his hometown because his family lives there. He visited Hefei during winter break.
News about the coronavirus didn’t fully spread to the residents of China until Chinese New Year, around Jan. 20, Hu said.
Hu flew back to the United States Jan. 9. before A&M-San Antonio’s fall semester began. If he was to return at a later date, he wouldn’t have been able to get a ticket to fly home.
Chinese citizens wish government officials had been more transparent about the coronavirus from the start, Hu said.
“Residents feel that if the Chinese government had confirmed their news about the coronavirus earlier, as it had been speculated around December and early January, they may have been able to contain the virus more,” Hu said.
Not only is the coronavirus epidemic affecting people in China, it is also affecting their economy.
“The virus has taken a huge toll on China economically because Chinese residents are not permitted to leave their homes,” Hu said.
Each family has received one pass that allows them to leave their home, Hu said.
“Each family can only send one person out every other day to go grocery shopping, and on all other days all family members need to stay at home,” Hu said.
Hu’s parents are Chinese residents. His dad is 75, his mom is 70. Like many others, they are being confined in their homes.
Hu says his parents do not express as much worry as other residents because of where they live in China.
Even though they are both retired and are not affected by missing work, they are still tired of being confined in their homes, Hu said.
Students react to COVID-19
Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland was one of the U.S. military bases used for quarantining people who might have come in contact with the coronavirus.
The evacuees quarantined at Lackland were released March 3 after their mandatory 14-day quarantine was over. The evacuees were shuttled directly to the airport and airport staff guided them through the boarding process for their flights, with the exception of a Wuhan woman who was released and visited North Star Mall. She was later quarantined again after an additional test was positive.
Some students on campus have expressed concern about the coronavirus and having the evacuees in San Antonio.
“I think it’s kind of scary because no one really knows how the disease was caused,” kinesiology freshman Lauren Lopez said. “It’s more like the flu, so I get paranoid sometimes. You can just get sick from whatever, and you always have to make sure you are washing your hands. Bringing them here, it just scares me honestly,”
History senior Jorge Escobedo also shared his thoughts on the quarantine.
“I think that the quarantine is a smart idea, but those people shouldn’t have been brought over,“ Escobedo said. “That is a huge risk to us and many things could happen.”
Finance major Jose Murillo said that while the situation is serious, it is manageable. He takes a cautious yet optimistic view of the future, citing the overall low threat to people beyond simple infection.
“I feel like it is very alarming but it shouldn’t be as alarming as some people make it out to be,” Murillo said. “Yes, the coronavirus is very contagious and there is no vaccine yet, but the fatality rate is very low compared to other viruses like the flu. With that rate being so low I think that we’ll find a cure before it gets out of control and causes more serious damage.”
Jada Chavarria, assistant bookstore manager, said she is not particularly worried about the virus, as long as everyone is taking precautions, keeping their hands to themselves and washing their hands. However, if there happens to be someone infected here on campus or nearby, the school should take action.
“If there is a case on campus, I think the school should shut down or evacuate for precaution and get people out,” Chavarria said.
University raises awareness about hand-washing
To help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases, the CDC recommends washing one’s hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds.
A&M-San Antonio has posted signs in campus restrooms about effective hand-washing.
Claudia Jacobson, computer and information science senior, said she already follows such protocols as a mom.
“I have a baby and wash my hands a bajillion times anyways,” Jacobson said, noting that she spends 30 seconds washing her hands.
Education junior Clydmica Haley said she also has not changed her daily habits since hearing about the coronavirus.
“I normally wash my hands a lot. My mom is a nurse so, like, she ingrained all those basic habits in me anyway. So there hasn’t been a change for me.”
History junior Joseph Platt wondered if the signs would make a difference.
“They seem like a helpful guide for people, but I don’t think they can make people wash their hands,” Platt said.
This story was updated at 8:14 p.m. March 6 to add the name of a student who is quoted: kinesiology freshman Lauren Lopez.