Published January 31, 2020
The World Health Organization on Thursday declared the outbreak of novel coronavirus a global emergency. While that news may stoke some anxiety among members of the UB community, university leaders want to assure students, faculty and staff that proper precautions are being taken to ensure the health and safety of everyone on campus.
At UB, a team of experienced professionals continues to monitor the situation on campus and has been coordinating with its partners in Erie County, New York State and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Consistent communication has been key to keeping the campus community apprised of important information on novel coronavirus, including basic tips on how members of campus can monitor their health.
UB created a coronavirus information website, which contains a list of frequently asked questions, a video featuring Susan Snyder, UB’s director of student health services, as well as links to advisories from the CDC and the U.S. Department of State (which issued a Do Not Travel to China warning.)
In addition, the university sent an all-campus email that included tips for monitoring one’s health, and has leveraged its social media channels, where UB’s coronavirus content has been viewed more than 300,000 times.
“As you might expect, there has been some concern on campus, but we believe our efforts have had a positive calming effect overall,” John DellaContrada, vice president for university communications, said during a media briefing yesterday in the Buffalo Room in Capen Hall.
Local media have been closely following UB’s response since the infectious disease was first reported Jan. 23, largely because the university has a significant international student population that includes approximately 1,500 students from China. DellaContrada urged the campus community to refrain from stigmatizing any particular group.
“Our campus community is aware that students, especially Chinese students, may have family directly impacted by the virus, and we should take care to offer them our support and understanding,” he said.
A handful of students could be seen wearing surgical masks around campus yesterday. But that’s not an unusual sight this time of year, Snyder said, noting that it’s peak cold and flu season. It’s also common for people in other cultures to wear surgical masks for a variety of reasons, such as protecting themselves from pollutants that can be inhaled and preventing the spread of germs.
“For some people it really is just a little comfort measure. There’s no specific mandate to wear a mask and there’s no rule against it, so if that is giving someone a little bit of comfort, that’s OK,” Snyder said.
UB has been following the lead of its partners at the CDC and the Erie County Department of Health. On Wednesday, Erie County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein, who is also a clinical professor in the Department of Pediatrics in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, reiterated there are no confirmed cases of novel coronavirus in Erie County, where UB’s campuses are located.
If, however, a case is confirmed at UB, the university is ready to coordinate with its partners. “The confirmation will come from Erie County. When we have that confirmation, our role is to take guidance from them. They get to lead,” Snyder said.
Still, UB has prepared for something like this previously.
“What has happened in the past for contagious illnesses, we have prepared for that and we’ve practiced,” she said. “We have pretended to have a case of something and worked through these steps so that everyone who’s going to play a role in it has had a chance to practice.”
Any students who have traveled within China in the past 14 days and develop symptoms should contact the health center, which will work with the county and state health departments to determine if testing is necessary based on evaluation criteria.
UB would follow the lead of the county and state in such cases. “This is a similar protocol that we’ve used with other contagious illnesses,” Snyder said.
That guidance could include instruction on whether students need to be moved or isolated and if alternate housing or transportation need to be provided — all of which UB is equipped to do, Snyder said, adding that UB’s residence halls have an infectious disease protocol in place.
Preparing for potentially significant global events such as the novel coronavirus outbreak is nothing new at UB, said Jay Roorbach, UB’s senior emergency planning coordinator.
“So far it’s really been a really well-run exercise in consistent communication, and I attribute that to our team, which interacts on a daily basis anyway, just coming together and continuing what we do,” he said.
UB had a trial run with infectious disease response during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, and university officials referred to those plans early on in their novel coronavirus response.
“We have also reviewed plans that were put in place years ago for an Ebola pandemic and some of the things that we’ve planned for are actually if this were to become a worse situation with the coronavirus, we would just implement our plans,” Roorbach said.
“It’s kind of just another normal day here at UB in terms of our interacting with each other and what we’re monitoring.”