Penn State officials closely monitoring spread of coronavirus

January 24, 2020

Editor's note: This story was updated on Feb. 19 to reflect the most current information.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Health and safety officials at Penn State are closely monitoring an outbreak of respiratory illness caused by a new strain of coronavirus, termed “2019-nCoV,” that was first detected in Wuhan, China, and has since spread to more than 20 other countries, including 15 confirmed cases in the United States.  

In addition to China and the U.S., the virus has been found as far as Australia, Canada and Finland, resulting in more than 75,000 people falling ill worldwide and more than 2,000 deaths, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, who are tracking the spread of the disease online.

“While we are taking every precaution to prepare for an outbreak, it’s very important to note that there are no cases of 2019-nCoV at Penn State and no reports of the virus in Pennsylvania at this time,” said Dr. Robin Oliver-Veronesi, senior director of University Health Services. “Coronavirus symptoms can be very similar to those of the flu, which is very active right now. So, we urge anyone with flu-like symptoms to contact their health care provider for an evaluation.”  

Common signs of 2019-nCoV include mild to severe respiratory illness with fever, cough and shortness of breath. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death, according to the World Health Organization. The suspected incubation period of the virus is believed to be from two to 14 days.

University Park students experiencing these symptoms can begin the screening process for coronavirus over the phone by calling the UHS Advice Nurse at 814-863-4463. Penn State urges faculty and staff to contact their health care provider immediately if they have respiratory symptoms with a fever and have been in Wuhan or nearby areas in China within the last two weeks. Students at Commonwealth Campuses should contact their on-campus health services office.

As this is an evolving situation, the most up-to-date information can be found from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.

Coronavirus: What are the facts?

With fears rising that an outbreak of the deadly coronavirus could mutate into a worldwide pandemic, Dr. Catharine Paules, an infectious disease specialist at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, says health care workers are still searching for answers. “We have been preparing for [a pandemic] ever since the Ebola outbreak of 2014,” she said, “and we have plans in place in case we would have a case of this virus here.”

Penn State Health

According to the CDC, coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, some causing illness in people and others that circulate among animals. Human-to-human transmission of 2019-nCoV has been confirmed — believed to occur from the exchange of respiratory fluids — but the CDC said it is unclear how easily the virus spreads between people, and the CDC continues to believe the risk of 2019-nCoV to the American public remains low at this time. The CDC recommends prevention techniques like washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and avoiding your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.

With China as the number one destination for Penn Staters traveling abroad, the University’s Global Safety Office is also closely monitoring the situation. At this time, the University has placed China on the restricted list for University-affiliated international travel for students, and faculty and staff are discouraged from traveling to the country. The Global Safety Office is available to take questions or discuss specific concerns with Penn State travelers.

While severe illness and deaths have been reported in China, other patients have had milder illness and been discharged, according to the CDC. However, preliminary information suggests that older adults and people with underlying health conditions may be at increased risk for severe disease from this virus.

Below are answers to frequently asked questions about 2019-nCoV.

How is Penn State preparing for the potential of coronavirus cases?

As is normal protocol, students who visit University Health Services are asked — and signs are posted —  to wear a mask when they present with respiratory symptoms, and clinicians ask a travel history at every visit. In light of 2019-nCov and its origins in China, Penn State health personnel at all campuses are inquiring about the travel history of all patients, paying particular attention for patients who may have traveled to China. In addition, all patients with fever, cough or sore throat are being provided with masks regardless of travel history. Penn State clinicians also are wearing personal protective equipment, including masks, eye protection and gloves, to guard against any potential exposure.

Any suspected cases of 2019-nCoV will be tested and reported to the Pennsylvania Department of Health immediately. Patients with more severe symptoms may be sent to the emergency department for evaluation and testing.

What are the symptoms of coronavirus 2019-nCoV?

Common signs of 2019-nCoV include mild to severe respiratory illness with symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death. The suspected incubation period of the virus is believed to be from two to 14 days.

How is 2019-nCoV spread?

At this time it is still unclear how easily or sustainability the virus is spreading from person to person. For other types of coronaviruses with person-to-person spread, such as SARS and MERS, it is thought to have happened via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. For both SARS and MERS, spread has generally occurred between close contacts.

Is it safe to travel to China?

The CDC has issued a Level 3 travel warning and recommends avoiding all nonessential travel to China. The U.S. Department of State on Jan. 30 elevated its travel advisory for China to Level 4 "Do Not Travel." Additionally, Penn State has placed China on the restricted list for University-affiliated international travel for students, and faculty and staff are discouraged from traveling to the country. Chinese officials have implemented quarantines and suspended air and rail travel in Wuhan and other cities in Hubei Province, and the State Department is advising travelers that the Chinese government could prevent them from entering or exiting parts of Hubei Province.

Is Penn State canceling or suspending study abroad programs to China? 

The safety of all our students, faculty and staff traveling internationally is our utmost priority. Penn State has placed China on the restricted list for University-affiliated international travel for students, and faculty and staff are discouraged from traveling to the country. We have a small number of faculty and staff travelers currently in China, but no student programming there at this time. The Penn State Global Safety Office has been in contact with travelers in China to communicate the latest travel advice issued by the State Department, the CDC and other official sources, and to serve as a resource for questions or concerns. We continue to monitor the situation and consult with current and future travelers to China. 

What can travelers do to protect themselves and others?

While Chinese officials have implemented travel restrictions for Wuhan and neighboring cities, according to the CDC, those who must travel to the region should:

  • Avoid contact with sick people.
  • Avoid animals (alive or dead), animal markets, and products that come from animals (such as uncooked meat).
  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.
  • Older travelers and those with underlying health issues may be at risk for more severe disease and should discuss travel to the region with their health care provider.

If you traveled to Wuhan and feel sick with fever, cough, or difficulty breathing, you should:

  • Seek medical care right away. Before you go to a doctor’s office or emergency room, call ahead and tell them about your recent travel and your symptoms.
  • Avoid contact with others.
  • Not travel while sick.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing.
  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.

How can 2019-nCoV be prevented and treated?

Currently, there is no vaccine to prevent infection, and there is no specific recommended antiviral treatment. According to the CDC, 2019-nCoV has not been found to be spreading in the United States at this time, so there are no additional precautions recommended for the general public to take.

However, the CDC does recommend the following preventive measures to avoid the spread of respiratory viruses in general, including:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.

Additional information is available from the CDC and the World Health Organization

Last Updated February 19, 2020