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    January 2020

    Responding to the Coronavirus Epidemic

    If your school, college, or university has students, faculty, or staff returning from or traveling to China, you are probably deeply concerned about the recent outbreak of the coronavirus. To understand more about the new strain of the virus and what steps your institution can take to manage the risk both domestically and abroad, use the information outlined below. 

    Understand Coronavirus and its Risks 

    The World Health Organization (WHO) defines coronaviruses as a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Coronaviruses are distinctly shaped viruses that can infect people and animals, usually causing only mild respiratory illness. They are relatively common internationally and often treated with vaccines. 

    However, sometimes the coronaviruses that infect animals evolve and infect people. New strains of the coronavirus without vaccines can result in quick-spreading, difficult-to-stop epidemics. For example, the 2002 SARS outbreak was a coronavirus epidemic.

    In January 2020, the WHO reported that a new coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, was identified in Wuhan, China. Since that time, the virus has spread rapidly resulting in a growing number of deaths and confirmed cases in China and other international locations, including the United States. For current case numbers and locations, see this map from the Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

    With no vaccine or treatment currently available for the 2019-nCoV coronavirus outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the State Department have cautioned against travel to China. Institutions can keep current on this rapidly evolving situation by regularly consulting the following organizations:

    • State Department — Use the travel advisories and map to identify State Department cautions by region and date. The map also provides embassy information and locations.
    • CDC — The CDC’s coronavirus index page provides an easy-to-understand medical overview of the developing pandemic from a U.S. perspective. Review the travel health notices for the CDC’s current health-based travel recommendations.
    • WHO — The WHO’s coronavirus index page provides medical recommendations and resources from an international perspective. Review situation reports for current outbreak information and travel recommendations.

    Manage Risks at Your Campus

    To prevent pandemic transmission on your campus — regardless of whether students, faculty, or staff are returning from China — consider the following actions:

    • Identify a pandemic response team with appropriate personnel from health services, housing, security, communications, food services, academic affairs, and legal counsel. Team members should have defined roles and responsibilities for preparedness, response, and recovery planning.
    • Conduct coronavirus screenings of students and staff who recently visited affected regions. Use qualified medical professionals. These professionals can refer to the CDC’s guidance for health care professionals to help conduct their assessment of potential medical needs.
    • Consider alerting the entire campus community about the coronavirus risk, preventive measures, and screening requirements. Advise travelers to contact their primary care provider prior to arriving for a coronavirus screening, allowing providers to prepare for the visit and take transmission prevention precautions. Here are a few sample school advisories:

    Manage Travel Risks

    If your school’s students or staff are travelling within epidemic regions, consider these additional recommendations:

    • Provide transportation options back to the U.S. for students and staff in China. Consider the same for students or staff in nearby countries.
    • State in writing that remaining in the region is completely voluntary and that a student’s program or a staff member’s job does not depend on it. In consultation with legal counsel, consider drafting a release specific to the outbreak for anyone who then chooses to stay in the region. Discuss the release when speaking about the outbreak and its potential effects with students or staff in the region.
    • Read United Educators’ (UE’s) Preparing for Medical Evacuations Abroad for help identifying current insurance coverages and resources if students or staff remain in the region. If students or staff plan to travel to the region despite warnings, read UE’s Heightened Vigilance Required in Study Abroad Risk Management for waiver and insurance recommendations.
    • Avoid unnecessary travel to China while the CDC Level 3 Travel Alert is in effect.

    Prevent Coronavirus Transmission on Campus and Abroad

    The WHO makes the following recommendations to reduce the general risk of transmission of acute respiratory infections including coronavirus:

    • Avoid close contact with people suffering from acute respiratory infections
    • Wash hands frequently, especially after direct contact with ill people or their environment
    • Avoid unprotected contact with farm or wild animals
    • Practice cough etiquette (maintain distance, cover coughs and sneezes with disposable tissues or clothing, and wash hands)
    • Enhance standard infection prevention and control practices when in health care facilities — particularly in hospital emergency departments 

    Evaluate Liability Risks

    Depending primarily on state negligence law, K-12 schools and higher ed institutions may have a duty to warn against known health risks on campus and abroad. Also dependent on state law, schools and institutions may have a duty to take reasonable preventive measures on campus against the transmission of known health risks.

    UE recommends consulting with local counsel for specific advice on your institution’s potential liability to students and employees in the context of the coronavirus.  

    More From UE

    Preparing for Flu and Other Pandemics
    Assessing Safety of Travel Abroad

    Other Resources

    NAIS — Understanding Coronavirus: What Schools Need to Know
    URMIA — Re: Coronavirus
    Inside Higher Ed — Preparing for Coronavirus

    By Melanie Bennett, JD, risk management counsel


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