Campus officials say the the institution is monitoring the spread of novel coronavirus after the outbreak in China, though there have been no confirmed local cases of the virus thus far.
According to communication posted to the International Programs website — signed by UI International Programs Dean Russ Ganim and interim Student Health Services Director Paul Natvig — the UI is tracking recommendations from health officials regarding detection, prevention, and possible treatment of the virus.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the virus originated in Wuhan, China as a sudden outbreak in respiratory illnesses. There are at least five confirmed cases in the U.S., and all known patients have recently returned from a visit to Wuhan.
“The University of Iowa is monitoring reports and recommendations regarding this coronavirus from national and regional health agencies on a daily basis, and is taking safety precautions to detect and treat any potential case of the virus by following the latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and the Iowa Department of Public Health,” according to the International Programs message.
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The message encouraged those who have traveled to or been in contact with those who have traveled to Wuhan, China within the last 14 days and feel sick with a fever, cough, or breathing difficulties to call the Student Health Nurseline (319-335-9704).
“All medical costs will be covered and your privacy will be maintained,” the message reads. “A nurse from Student Health will call you within the next 24 hours to follow up and answer any additional questions or concerns you may have at this time. Be sure to answer your phone, or follow the instructions to return a call if Student Health texts you.”
At a Faculty Council meeting Tuesday, Faculty Senate Vice President Joseph Yockey said the UI had a handful of students return from China and other areas of Asia within the month.
“UIHC has told us that they are fully prepared and ready to engage with any suspected cases,” Yockey said, adding that there have been no cases reported locally.
UI microbiology and immunology Professor Stanley Perlman, who has studied coronaviruses for the last 38 years, said this is the first time this particular strain of coronavirus has been found in human populations.
While it is too soon to say definitively, the virus is currently believed to have initially broken out among the bat population, because this strain is a 96 percent match with bats’ coronavirus, Perlman said.
There have been previous coronavirus outbreaks before the current epidemic. The CDC has identified seven strains of coronavirus, and Perlman said common coronaviruses can cause anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of common colds. The strains that cause serious human disease, such as strains MERS coronavirus and SARS coronavirus, were uncommon until 2003.
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Perlman and UI Hospitals and Clinics epidemiologist Jorge Salinas said the new strains spread through respiratory droplets. Hospitals were the most common places of infection for both of these strains because of the release of secretions through the base of the lungs during medical and surgical procedures.
This virus, however, is spreading beyond hospitals. Viruses at higher levels in the nasal and oral cavity are easier to spread, similar to a cold, Perlman said.
“This one is different because there is a huge amount of spread to the community,” Perlman said. “So how, exactly, it is spreading is still a question because these others were clearly in the base of the lungs. And this one, we don’t know. We guess it is in the base of the lungs but it’s really spreading quite a bit.”
Perlman added that other important variables include where the virus sits in the lungs and how much of the virus is contained in a carrier.
“The other thing that happened in the other epidemics is what is called ‘super-spreading events,’ so people seem to have more virus and, because of that, they can infect lots of people,” Perlman said. “If you are a super-spreader, you could be contagious… You were able to get lots of people because your virus spreads a longer distance.”
Salinas added that treatment for a patient with coronavirus would currently be mostly supportive, providing fluids and regulatory support for the patient until treatment can be found.
The spread of novel coronavirus is similar to that of influenza, and procedures surrounding influenza will be similar to the procedure involving the spread of novel coronavirus if there is ever a case in Iowa, Salinas said.
“The hospital is always training and preparing for the prevention of transmission of pathogens,” he said. “We also keep a very close eye on data and recommendations from the CDC and the Iowa Department of Public Health.”
He emphasized that, at the moment, Iowa citizens are much more likely to contract influenza and the basic steps to avoid influenza are the same when approaching other respiratory illnesses such as coronaviruses.
“One, frequent hand hygiene needs to be done,” Salinas said. “Two, cough etiquette. If you’re sick and coughing, then cough into your arm or into a tissue, then wash your hands. And three, if people are feeling ill or have high fevers, they should avoid going to congregate settings.”