As fears escalate across California about a potential outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19), school districts and college campuses this week moved to quell fears from parents and staff about the growing threat.
The moves come as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigates what could be the first case of novel coronavirus involving a person who had not recently traveled outside of the country or come into contact with others who have been abroad.
That patient, from Solano County, is being treated at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.
On Thursday, UC Davis Chancellor and Vice Chancellor David Lubarsky said that no one at the medical center or on the main campus has been diagnosed with the virus but said that “out of an abundance of caution” three students who are roommates in a campus dormitory are in isolation. The CDC is testing one of those students, who is currently back home with mild symptoms like a runny nose and a cough. No further details were available.
“We like to think of containing the spread of an infection like some concentric rings, so we know these three students were potentially exposed to coronavirus, so that’s kind of the inner ring,” Ron Chapman, Yolo County Health Officer, said Thursday afternoon. “At this point, it really feels like we have gotten on top of this very early so it does not seem like we would have to expand those rings of investigation.”
As a precaution, daily disinfection practices are being implemented within all student housing and dining properties at UC Davis. There were no plans to cancel classes, although abroad both the University of California and California State University systems have suspended programs in China and Seoul, South Korea.
Across CSU’s 23 campuses and UC’s 10 campuses in California, no students or faculty have been reported as being sick with the virus.
UC president Janet Napolitano bolstered previous warnings about scholars and students traveling to nations affected by the virus and directed “the UC community to temporarily avoid all non-essential, university-related travel to countries that are designated with a CDC Warning — Level 3 Travel Notice.” This currently includes South Korea and China, but not Macau or Hong Kong.
The California Community College system also has asked its colleges to review their emergency operations plans to take into account possible disruptions related to COVID-19.
At Los Rios Community College District in Sacramento, two students at colleges in the district who are medical professionals came into contact with an infected individual last week, according to district officials. The district said the two, who attend Cosumnes River College and American River College, began 14-day self-quarantines on Wednesday on instruction from county health officials, who said the campuses were not at risk.
Across the state, meanwhile, school K-12 officials announced in emails and via social media that they were reviewing emergency operation plans and asked parents to take precautions similar to those taken during flu season.
The novel coronavirus, also called COVID-19, is from the family of viruses that causes the common cold. It causes respiratory ailments and is typically spread by droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes but can be transmitted by touching surfaces. Symptoms can include fever, cough and shortness of breath.
The state Department of Education issued a guidance letter to district and county superintendents saying its top priority was “to diffuse the fear and reassure our communities that schools are prepared and have plans in place.”
Department spokesman Scott Roark said districts are required to have an emergency plan in place but while those can incorporate a pandemic plan such plans are not mandated.
The statement directed officials to state Department of Public Health recommendations that ranged from basic hygiene tips to urging local education agencies to plan for serving students’ learning needs in case of school closures.
For some parents around the state, the rising crescendo of news about the novel coronavirus in California was unnerving.
Tomeko Smith, a resident of Moreno Valley, said she was considering keeping her eight-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter home from school.
“I would like to see them take more safety cautions and prevention,” she said. “I would like to see a virus plan. You really need to prevent things.”
Smith said she gave her son a bottle of hand sanitizer and instructed him to use it every time he touched any surface at the Moreno Valley Unified School District school he attends.
A Moreno Valley spokeswoman said all of the district’s schools are practicing safety measures as they do with other illnesses or respiratory diseases, such as the flu or cold, with a special emphasis on hand washing with soap, which health officials say is one of the most effective preventative measures.
Officials in various school districts in Sacramento County reported only a handful of calls from concerned parents. Districts responded in different ways, some offering links to the county health department website, others sending notices, posting tweets and publishing material on their websites.
In Solano County, where scores of passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship were taken to Travis Air Force Base for coronavirus quarantine, the Travis Unified School District in Fairfield issued a statement Thursday saying it was notified by the CDC “to urge our sites to prepare for possible 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreaks.”
The district urged citizens to remain calm, assuring that all school facilities were routinely being cleaned according to standard protocol.
“While this may be alarming to some parents, the risk to Solano County residents and the general public is still low at this time,” the statement read.
Los Angeles County Superintendent of Schools Debra Duardo in an online video statement assured the public that her office would be working with school districts “to identify and develop plans to support the education of our students should schools or districts need to close for any reason.”
No details about what those plans might entail were available.
The San Juan Unified School District in Sacramento County was offering much the same information and links to health services websites.
The district’s health services and student support services departments have been communicating with the county Department of Public Health, but the district leaders plan to convene a larger group next week to begin planning in case the virus continues to spread, said Raj Rai, district spokeswoman.
The district, which had to close an elementary school last year when students fell ill from norovirus, launched a similar planning team when H1N1, or the swine flu, was prominent.
“We may never get to that level, but it is good to have that in case,” Rai said. “We don’t want to be caught off guard if it comes to that point.”
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday held a press conference, acknowledging that 33 people in California have been diagnosed with the virus. Newsom and others insisted that the risk to the public remained low, but said the state is responding aggressively to the disease by tracking known contacts of infected individuals and working with federal officials to get testing kits and CDC experts on the ground.
“Everybody in this country is rightfully anxious about this moment,” Newsom said, “but I think they should know that we are meeting this moment with the right kind of urgency.”
Staff Writers Diana Lambert, Larry Gordon and Michael Burke contributed to this report.
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