As cases of a deadly new strain of coronavirus increase in the United States and worldwide, the University has reported no cases of the virus at Penn or in Philadelphia but is currently monitoring the situation.
An email sent by Provost Wendell E. Pritchett, Executive Vice President Craig R. Carnaroli, and Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé on Jan. 24 to the Penn community stated that all students who traveled to China within the last 14 days and developed a cough, fever, or difficulty breathing should contact Student Health Services immediately. Director of Campus Health Ashlee Halbritter said in an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian that Campus Health is working with the Study Abroad Office, International Student and Scholar Services, and Penn Global to communicate with Chinese international students and students currently studying, planning to study, or traveling abroad in the near future.
“We will continue to monitor these groups of people and communicate with them to make sure they have all the information they need to stay healthy and well if they are going to continue to travel,” Halbritter said.
Coronaviruses are a large, very common family of viruses, according to the email sent to the Penn community on Friday. The new strain originally broke out in Wuhan, China and was detected by Chinese authorities on Dec. 31, according to The Washington Post. The New York Times reported that over 2,700 cases and 80 deaths have been recorded. The disease has spread to 10 countries, including the United States, prompting travel bans and lockdowns in affected areas on more than 50 million citizens in China, according to The New York Times.
There are currently five cases in the United States: two in southern California and one each in Chicago, Arizona, and Washington, according to CNN. Five U.S. airports have since begun screening all passengers coming from China for the coronavirus, NBC5 Chicago reported. Philadelphia International Airport is not among those screening. CNN said all five U.S. patients are in “good condition."
Dubé warns, however, against becoming complacent.
“We need to continue to be diligent," Dubé said. "We are still trying to figure out how it begins so we are all using universal precautions from people at a much higher level."
The precautions, listed in the email to the Penn community, include practicing good hand hygiene, limiting the spread of germs, and staying home from classes and work if you are feeling unwell. Chief Operating Officer for Wellness Services Erika Gross said that these are normal precautions for the flu. Gross added that the flu is currently widespread in Philadelphia but is unlinked to the coronavirus.
“My office works with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health every day," Halbritter said. "Often it’s just about the flu and more common illnesses, but when something more rare like this pops up, we make sure that we are doing everything we can to support students.”
Similarly, Harvard University Health Services director and previous Penn Student Health Services director Giang Nguyen wrote in an email to The Harvard Crimson that Harvard is monitoring the virus but believes students should be more concerned about the flu.
In addition to the more regular communication, Halbritter said that there is greater communication between Penn, Philadelphia Department of Public Health, CDC, and other state-run health departments than with previous coronavirus outbreaks, such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. Halbritter said the increase in communication has helped Penn stay at the forefront of prevention.
“From the vantage point of a Penn student, I think it’s important to appreciate how we are extremely fortunate to have access to all this expertise and relationships,” Dubé said.