This winter, schools have had to cope with a particularly difficult cold and flu season and, now, are grappling with how to respond to concerns about the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (“2019-nCoV”).
What is Novel Coronavirus?
The Centers for Disease Control (“CDC”) has been closely monitoring the 2019-nCoV, which was first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China and has caused an outbreak of respiratory illness. There have been thousands of confirmed cases in China, and additional cases in a growing number of other countries, including the United States. As of February 3, 2020, 11 individuals have tested positive for 2019-nCoV in the United States. (For a link to updated information from the CDC go to: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/index.html).
There is significant uncertainty concerning the 2019-nCoV, and current knowledge is based off what is known about similar coronaviruses, like SARS and MERS. The CDC believes that the virus is most often spread when an infected person comes into close contact with another person, usually when the infected person coughs or sneezes and respiratory droplets land in the other person’s mouth or nose. It is undetermined whether 2019-nCoV can be spread after a person touches a surface that has the virus and then touches his or her own mouth, nose or eyes.
Atypical of other viruses, there have been reports that 2019-nCOV can be spread from an infected person even if that person has no symptoms. At this time, the CDC believes that symptoms may appear anywhere from 2 to 14 days after exposure to the virus, and therefore, many of the recommendations for monitoring individuals for exposure are based off this 14 day incubation period.
Patients with 2019-nCoV may experience symptoms similar to the flu, such as fever, cough and difficulty breathing, though symptoms can range from mild to very severe. Unlike the flu, there is no current vaccine, and therefore the best prevention is to minimize the chances for exposure.
Since January 27, 2020, the CDC has been recommending that travelers avoid all nonessential travel to China. More recently, the World Health Organization (“WHO”) classified the outbreak as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern and just yesterday, the United States Department of State (“State Department”) issued a Level 4 Travel Advisory, warning people not to travel to China due to concerns about the 2019-CoV. The State Department also warned that most travelers should prepare for travel restrictions with little or no notice and that most commercial air carriers have reduced or suspended routes to and from China.
Effective February 2, 2020, the White House also issued new travel restrictions prohibiting foreign nationals (except for permanent residents and immediate family members of United States citizens) who have been in China in the last 14 days from entering the United States. In addition, citizens returning to the United States are being placed on quarantine if they have visited the Hubei province within the past 14 days and citizens who have visited other parts of China are being screened, monitored, and may be asked to quarantine themselves.
What Should Schools Be Doing?
At this time, the 2019-nCoV poses a serious public health threat, but it remains unclear how this threat will continue to unfold in the United States. The CDC emphasizes that the risk to individuals is dependent on exposure. Therefore, schools should regularly monitor guidance from the CDC, WHO and state and local departments of public health for guidance and updates on recommended precautions. In additions, schools should:
- Communicate how you are monitoring the situation to your school community
- If you have any upcoming trips to China, contact travel companies as soon as possible and review cancellation policies and communicate with students and families about any cancellations or changes
- For independent schools that may have students planning to travel to China during school break or for other reasons, reach out to these students and their families to help them develop alternative plans
- Work with your local health department and within current CDC/WHO guidance to evaluate whether your school should restrict access to campus for visitors traveling from China
- Continue to monitor the health and wellness of any students or staff who have recently returned from travel abroad
- Be sure to remind students and staff to engage in the following everyday preventive actions:
- Frequent and thorough hand-washing for at least 20 seconds
- Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available
- Avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands
- Avoiding close contact with people who are sick
- Staying home when you are sick
- Covering your cough or sneeze with a tissue, and then throwing the tissue in the trash
- Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces.
When making decisions related to 2019-nCoV, schools must be mindful of their obligations under civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination and harassment on the basis of disability, race, and national origin. Schools must take care to avoid stereotypical assumptions and discriminatory actions when handling 2019-nCoV related issues, and the best way to avoid this is by adhering closely to public health guidance as it continues to evolve.