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Students will be required to wear a mask on campus, according to the Cornell behavioral compact.

January 27, 2020

Amid International Coronavirus Outbreak, Even a Cold Can Cause Panic

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When Chendan Luo ’22 returned to campus from her hometown, Wuhan, China, after winter break, she immediately got a screening for coronavirus at Cornell Health.

“There was someone on my flight who was coughing,” Luo told The Sun. “After the first day of class, I just wanted to make sure everything was fine.”

Luo is one of many students at Cornell who expressed anxiety about the Wuhan coronavirus, which may have originated in one of the city’s wildlife markets, similar to the kind that Luo visited during winter break. China has since banned wildlife trade due to the outbreak.

At Cornell Health, doctors asked Luo about her symptoms and whereabouts during winter break. She was at Cornell Health for about an hour, but doctors let her return to her West Campus dorm when they concluded she showed no symptoms of coronavirus.

Symptoms for the infamous disease include a high fever, cough, shortness of breath and a sore throat, and in more severe cases, pneumonia is also possible, according to Cornell Health. Not much is known about this particular strain of coronavirus, but it appears that it can be transmitted by person-to-person contact.

On campus, even a common cold — which has a WebMD list of remarkably similar symptoms to the feared virus — is enough to set off panic that the coronavirus may have reached Ithaca.

In a group chat for Chinese international students’ parents, one parent posted that a student traveling from Wuhan seemed to have symptoms which mirrored the coronavirus. This student’s roommate, the parent wrote, also supposedly came down with similar symptoms.

That fear spread quickly across campus.

“Whenever someone coughs now, everyone sort of stiffens,” said Qi Lim ’20, who posted a translated version of the message onto a Cornell Reddit page, publicizing rumors previously only known among Chinese international students.

The post set off a flurry of comments and debate, with many users urging the student to visit a doctor.

“Everyone should be wearing a mask [right now],” one user commented.

The Sun reached out to the student who was the subject of the post, and she confirmed that she only had a cold, but visited Cornell Health to rule out the possibility of infection. At Cornell and in New York state, there are currently no confirmed cases of the Wuhan coronavirus.

Lim told The Sun he posted the message on Jan. 23 because he wanted to raise awareness on the severity of the disease.

“I think that it’s important for people to see on campus that this could be on campus,” Lim said. “It’s not a fear tactic or to raise panic, but they should watch their hygiene and it helps people to be more aware and vigilant.”

When classes resumed on Jan. 21, Cornell Health sent a message to all students from Wuhan. The message encouraged students to visit Cornell Health if they had previously traveled from the city or were closely in contact with someone infected, and then began to show any coronavirus symptoms.

Two days later, the health center emailed the Cornell community, writing that the University was closely monitoring the disease. Cornell Health told The Sun in a statement on Thursday that it has been following the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization guidelines on the coronavirus, and it would stay “vigilant” if any students did contract the illness.

The coronavirus has now infected 1,975 people in China and killed 56 as of Sunday afternoon, The New York Times reported. It is suspected that there are up to 3,000 — 1,000 could solely be from Wuhan — more cases in China, Chinese officials said on Sunday.

As of Sunday evening, there are five confirmed cases of the mysterious illness in the U.S. — and all afflicted had previously traveled to Wuhan. These cases are in Washington, Arizona, California and Illinois.

Since the semester began, scores of students have been wearing facemasks on campus. One such student is Angela Chen ’20 — a Hangzhou, China native — who bought two masks shortly after returning to campus on Thursday.

“If I know that I’m going to a place where there will be a lot of people like a huge class lecture, I will wear it,” Chen said.

While the CDC recommends facemasks, it is not an entirely effective preventative measure. According to Prof. Gary Whittaker, virology, who researches coronaviruses, if the virus’ mode of transmission is through inhaling infectious air particles, then a typical facemask is not as helpful.

“The kind mask that would stop that is the N95 mask, which is hard to get and very uncomfortable to wear,” Whittaker said. “It’s certainly a useful precaution, but it is not a guarantee.”

For others, the coronavirus is a more pressing concern back home in China than in Ithaca. Beijing resident Chengji Liu ’22, who has relatives in Wuhan, told The Sun he worries about his parents, who are still in Wuhan. Liu’s parents visited Wuhan for the Spring Festival, a Chinese holiday that rings in the new year, according to the traditional Chinese lunar calendar.

Now, Wuhan is under lockdown. The Chinese government halted all public transportation in the city and almost all private cars are banned from the roads. Long-distance bus trips to other cities like Beijing and Shanghai have also been suspended.

“I gave my parents a call everyday, I went over to ask if they are OK and I’ve asked if my other relatives are OK,” Liu said. “I, personally, feel regret, because I could have forced them to stay in Beijing.”

As the virus continues to spread worldwide, Luo said she was concerned that the outbreak could inhibit other international students from traveling back to the U.S. for the spring semester.

“I have friends that need to travel back for the new semester, and right now the city is shut down,” Luo said. “I think all of China is worried about this. We don’t know how long this is going to last.”