The University of New Mexico’s Emergency Management department issued a university-wide statement on Friday informing students about the novel coronavirus outbreak. The flu-like illness has infected over 16,000 people globally and taken at least 304 lives to date, according to the World Health Organization, which declared the outbreak a global health emergency last week.
Originating in Wuhan, China, the coronavirus has spread to at least 25 countries, including the United States where a ninth case was confirmed on Feb. 2, in California. The news comes days after U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar II declared a public health emergency for the entire country.
Despite the rising number of confirmed cases across the globe, UNM officials assure students the outbreak in its current state doesn’t pose an urgent risk to New Mexican residents. UNM Student Health and Counseling (SHAC) Infection Control Officer Lisa Leahigh said the risk in the United States and particularly in New Mexico is very low.
“The World Health Organization, in terms of their declaration of it being an emergency, is not so much their concern of places like the United States, but more for countries that have a poor healthcare infrastructure being able to respond to an infectious disease outbreak,” Leahigh said. “We’re less at risk here in the United States and in New Mexico particularly and on campus. You keep boiling that down smaller and smaller, so we’re at very low risk.”
News of a confirmed case of coronavirus on Arizona State University campus hit home for many New Mexicans just a state away. Officials at UNM say they have established a course of action in the event that the coronavirus reaches UNM, though were reluctant to delve into detail.
“We absolutely have plans in place, but we don’t generally talk about what our tactical response policy is,” said Byron Piatt, UNM’s Emergency Manager.
Piatt said he believes healthcare professionals in the United States could mitigate human-to-human spread of the virus.
While Piatt declined to describe UNM’s procedure set to address a hypothetical coronavirus case on campus, UNM SHAC Interim Executive Director Dr. James Wilterding offered insight into what could take place.
“Let’s say someone comes in here and we decided that they’ve potentially been exposed and that they have symptoms consistent with coronavirus,” Wilterding said. “We’d immediately contact [the Department of Health] and there will be a way we’d collect specimens for texting and follow a very well set standard for isolating that individual in an appropriate way that isn’t too invasive for them, so that they can’t be exposed to other people. And we have that in place until we have an answer of some sort.”
Wilterding added that the public health infrastructure in the United States is bolstered at “local, state, regional, national and international levels” by emergency preparations called tabletop exercises, wherein healthcare professionals prepare for emergencies by meeting and discussing procedures for handling various disaster scenarios.
However, Wilterding said that the seasonal flu poses a larger threat than coronavirus.
“It’s actually more likely that you’re going to contract the flu and die of that in New Mexico right now than it is coronavirus,” Wilterding said.
Amidst a surge of concern about the outbreak making its rounds on social media, UNM officials warned against the spread of misinformation. While UNM doesn't view the outbreak as a threat to campus, the statement issued Friday noted UNM “will continue to monitor the situation using guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease and Prevention and the New Mexico Department of Health,” and provided links to coronavirus information through each organization.
“It’s a combination of don't worry, but pay attention,” Wilterding said. “I wouldn’t even say be careful. I would say be informed. Don’t worry, but be informed.”
At present, UNM’s Global Education Office (GEO) confirmed that no UNM students or researchers are currently abroad in China, nor have any recently returned from coronavirus-afflicted regions. While UNM’s campus hosts around 200 international students and scholars from China, UNM Director of International Student and Scholar Services Linda Melville noted that nearly all of these individuals would have arrived to campus by January 21st, meaning they’ve been at UNM past the end of the incubation period for the virus as estimated by the CDC.
The low risk of coronavirus stateside hasn't prevented anti-Chinese sentiment from taking root online.
“It’s not only a health-related issue, but I think that, for individuals that are from China, it’s a very personal issue for them and I think any joke or making light of the situation is not taking into account how individuals are personally being affected by this,” Todd Karr, UNM’s Director of Education Abroad, said. “They may have family or friends who are subject to the outbreak, and being stateside and not having that direct contact isn’t easy for them.”
Joe Rull is the multimedia editor of New Mexico News Port. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.