In mid-January, news began circulating of a deadly virus from China. Within a few days, the number of infected people reached hundreds, and by Jan. 30 the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared the deadly pathogen to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). This designation signifies that the coronavirus poses a threat to the whole world.
The coronavirus, temporarily named 2019-nCoV, is a deadly airborne pathogen that was first detected in Wuhan City, China. It was likely an animal virus that mutated in one of Wuhan’s many live animal markets, allowing it to infect humans, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Other outbreaks of animal coronaviruses occurred in the 2012 outbreak of MERS and the 2003 outbreak of SARS.
The coronavirus is of particular concern for students in the University of Dallas Rome program, whose travel renders them particularly susceptible.
The Rome program did not delay its response. A parent of a Rome student reached out to the dean and program director Dr. Peter Hatlie with concerns on Jan. 25, just days after news of the virus reached headlines. The following day, Hatlie purchased 120 masks from local hardware stores to distribute to students. The next day they were all sold out.
“The University of Dallas is developing a longer-term action-plan for all branches and schools of the university at the time of the writing of this letter, and that plan (when ready) will be shared with you,” Hatlie wrote in a letter to parents on Jan. 28. “Rest assured that we will take good care of each student.”
Current Rome sophomore Julia Kraus is concerned about how quickly the virus spreads.
“I don’t think people really understand how contagious it is,” said Kraus. For every one person that gets sick, 14 more are infected, she explained.
Dr. Laura Rodriguez explained just how contagious the virus is.
“As it is a respiratory infection, the primary mode of infection is felt to be respiratory droplets, tiny droplets produced when a person coughs or sneezes. In close contact (<6 ft), these droplets travel to surrounding people who then are exposed through their eyes, nose or mouth or inhale the particles into their lungs.. The incubation period, time from exposure to possible infection is 2-14 days. As is frequently the case, older people and those with chronic or other medical problems are at greatest risk of getting sick and have more severe infections,” Rodriguez said.
The coronavirus does not strictly spread through direct person-to-person contact, though.
“If you touch something, that thing will stay contaminated,” said Kraus. This puts students who are traveling at a particular risk, even if they are not coming into direct contact with infected people.
“My biggest fear right now is probably airports,” said Kraus, “but I honestly think that if you try not to touch your face, and use lots of sanitizer and soap, you’ll be fine. But it is a little bit of a concern right now.”
In order to protect students from the virus as they travel, the program distributed protective FFP2 masks, which are equivalent to the American ND95 mask, to prevent airborne infection. The disposable mask can filter 95% of airborne particles, according to the CDC.
In addition, the campus now offers many hand sanitizer stations, and students were even offered bus transportation to and from excursions in Rome, rather than having to take public transportation.
“We’ve had the terrorist threats,” said Hatlie. “[The] SARS [virus]… never got this far out of hand. We’ve never had something fully like this.”
Although the situation escalated quickly, it appears that the virus in Europe has been contained.
“Though the infection started in China, it quickly became a global issue,” said Rodriguez. As of Feb. 10th, infection is found in the United States and Canada, as well as in eight european countries. “The only US citizen to die from the infection was still in China. In Italy, there have been 3 cases, a Chinese couple traveling on a tour and an Italian who was in Wuhan for business,” said Rodriguez.
“In Italy, the one verified case has been quarantined, there’s no evidence to suggest that there is any more [of a] threat in Italy,” said Hatlie. “I’m pretty relaxed about it.”
Parents of current Rome students may not share his relaxed sentiments. Parents have suggested sending home students with a Rome semester refund, or putting the campus under lockdown, Hatlie said during a program meeting on Feb. 10.
Although the Rome program is prepared to take further measures, Hatlie doubts that it will be necessary.
“If we had to completely reconfigure the whole semester we would do that. Including repatriating [the students], if that would be helpful. But I don’t even think we’re remotely close to that right now,” said Hatlie.
“We have to remain vigilant but we should not be paranoid,” said Rodriguez, whose daughter is currently in Rome. “‘Alert but not anxious’ is a good motto.”
Professor of Biology Dr. William Cody also commented on student health in relation to 2019-nCoV.
“I think anytime someone is concerned about their health, we need to address that concern and make them feel better about their safety. I don’t think that students in Dallas and students on the Rome campus are at the point where they should have significant cause of concern,” said Cody.
Perhaps even more concerning than the virus itself is the misguided xenophobia that accompanies it. This fear of Asian people comes from the association of Asians with the virus because it originated in China.
On Feb. 5, sophomores Tiffany Han and Michelle MacIntyre were walking with a large group of University of Dallas students. They described how they were singled out by a group of Italians, who shouted “hi” in Japanese to them. This was their second such experience: a group of kids called out to them in Chinese in Albano, the small town in which UD’s Rome campus resides.
“I feel like they were targeting us,” said Han, who is Korean and Taiwanese. “They didn’t do it to other people in the group.” She was with MacIntyre, who is half Chinese.
“I don’t know if it’s a natural thing that happens when Asians go abroad or if it’s because of the coronavirus, if (because of the virus) people have been noticing ‘oh, there’s an Asian,’” said Han.
Han’s encounters with being called out as an Asian instill a kind of fear in her experience of Rome.
“I’m always kind of scared when I see other people, instead of ‘I’m here to explore and to see the sights,’” said Han. “It’s always in the back of my mind, I’m always kind of scared, what if someone calls me out or is rude to me because of how I look. I think it’s more of a fear now than before.”
This fear is found not only between Asians and non-Asians, but Han explained that there is a sense of fear among Asians themselves.
“I feel like when an Asian normally sees an Asian it’s like, ‘oh there’s another Asian,’ but now it’s more like, ‘what if she has the virus?’”
For UD students, the sight of tourists in Rome wearing protective masks is a poignant reminder of the viral threat.
“If I ever see an Asian person wearing a mask, it’s honestly kind of scary for me, just because of everything going on,” said sophomore Stefi Taliente. “It just makes me cautious. I have my guard up more.”
Regardless, sophomore Kien Tran will not let the threat of the virus infect his Rome experience.
“If people call me out, do I really care about it?” asked Tran, who is Vietnamese. “No.”