UI panel discusses response, concerns on coronavirus

While public concern over the recent coronavirus outbreak continues to grow, four UI officials sat down to discuss realities and perceptions of the virus at a panel Feb. 21.


Abby Watkins

Epidemiologist Jorge Salinas talks about the spread of coronavirus during the World Canvas discussion about Coronavirus on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020 at the Old Town Capitol Mall.

Mary Hartel, News Reporter

Four University of Iowa experts gathered for a panel Feb. 21 at the University Capitol Center to address common concerns and misperceptions pertaining to the coronavirus, emphasizing campus efforts to prepare in the event of a local outbreak.

The WorldCanvass panel kicked off with host Joan Kjaer, UI International Programs director of communications and relations, asking the members of the panel to clarify what the coronavirus is.

UI Hospitals and Clinics epidemiologist Jorge Salinas said public-health officials have determined the recent outbreak of the seventh strain of coronavirus in Wuhan, China to be very transmissible from human to human within the last few weeks.

“In some respects, it’s similar to influenza,” Salinas said.

He added that because the virus is so new, there is currently no evidence of medicine to counter it, although experts are studying a number of antiviral treatments.

UI Clinical Professor Michael Pentella, Iowa State Hygienic Laboratory director, said the public-health response to the coronavirus and the fact that there has been no local transmission within the U.S. are good signs.

“… It’s not really a level of worry,” he said. “I think it’s a matter of concern and watching.”

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The containment of coronavirus transmission within the U.S. has created an opportunity for the nation to become more prepared for the future of the virus, Pentella said.

“We’ve faced challenges like this before, and I know that we are prepared to do it again,” he said.

UI Student Health interim Director Paul Natvig said his team determined quickly that the coronavirus could affect the UI campus and its students.

“You’ve got to be ready on the fly,” he said.

Natvig said that while there is no ideal time for such an outbreak to occur, because concern mounted during winter break — when many international students were returning to campus —the situation intensified.

Student Health’s primary goal is currently education and communication, Natvig said.

He said being proactive and reaching out to experts has been key in handling the situation, and he doesn’t think people fully understand how much work happens behind the scenes.

Dongwang Liu, UI International Programs associate director of the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies, pointed out to the panel the stark contrast between their calm demeanor and the media coverage of the coronavirus.

“In the panel, we see folks are so academic and calm in talking about the virus,” Liu said during part of the event in which audience members asked the panel questions. “But if you look at the media … everything is sounding a huge alarm.”

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Russ Ganim, UI associate provost and International Programs dean, said UI officials were focused on communications, resources, and support.

“… Fortunately, we are a medical campus,” Ganim said. “We have all sorts of resources; we can handle situations such as these.”

Ganim added that, despite efforts to reassure the public that there are ways to manage the situation, some students have been singled out and bullied based on their perceived nationality. He emphasized that such behavior is not to be tolerated.

“…We are an open, welcoming place that can deal with problems, and everyone should be made to feel comfortable and included in our campus community,” Ganim said.

Editor’s note: a previous version of this article incorrectly stated Dongwang Liu’s title. He is the associate director of Center for Asian and Pacific Studies, not the director. The DI regrets the error.