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Gonzaga recalls students, suspends study-abroad program in Italy due to coronavirus

A man wears a face mask in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican during Pope Francis' weekly general audience, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. The viral outbreak that began in China and has infected more than 80,000 people globally, so far caused 323 cases and 11 deaths in Italy. (Alessandra Tarantino / AP)

Gonzaga University students studying abroad in Italy will return to the United States due to the spread of COVID-19, Gonzaga Provost Deena J. Gonzalez said in an employee email.

Instead of returning to campus from the program in Florence, students will return to their permanent residences. The only students who will return to Spokane are those who are from here.

According to France 24, there has been one case of COVID-19, as the disease is officially known, in Florence. But some 447 infections and 12 deaths have been reported in Italy, with most cases near Milan, which is 180 miles from Florence.

“Over the past 48 hours, we have become increasingly concerned that by continuing our program in Florence, we will not be able to assure an appropriate degree of safety or access to services,” Gonzalez wrote. “Further, we do not know when this situation will stabilize.”

Facing such uncertainty, the university has also suspended the Florence program for the entirety of the spring 2020 semester.

The Spokane Regional Health District is coordinating with Gonzaga to bring the students home, but it is not advising that the students be tested for the virus.

Kelli Hawkins, a health district spokesman, said testing was not being done because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines do not require those traveling in Italy to be tested.

“So what we are informing them to do is just take the normal precautions and guidance,” Hawkins said. “From what I understand, they are going to individual homes, not necessarily bound to campus. So at this point, we’re just wanting them to be aware of their own health and being good with personal handwashing and hygiene.”

Testing for the virus is only advised under certain conditions, such as when a person is coming from an affected area and is expressing symptoms compatible with coronavirus, Mark Springer, health district epidemiologist, said.

Other candidates for testing are people who have a severe respiratory illness that could be compatible with coronavirus symptoms and people who have had contact with someone who has contracted the virus, Springer said.

As Gonzaga brings its students home, other area universities have not recalled their students from study-abroad programs.

Whitworth University doesn’t have any students, faculty or staff who are in areas substantially affected by the virus, said Nicholas McKinney, Whitworth International Education Center director. Whitworth currently has 40 study-abroad students in 10 countries.

Whitworth plans to continue watching the situation, but there isn’t a sense of panic or fear on campus, McKinney said. The university is providing support to international students who have family in countries with high infection rates.

“Right now, of course, I think students and their families back home are encouraging them to stay here in the U.S. and on campus,” McKinney said. “Certainly students who are from locations where there are a large number of cases and a growing number of cases have concern and worry for their family and their communities back home.”

None of Eastern Washington University’s programs have been impacted, said EWU spokesman Dave Meany. Officials from Washington State University and the University of Idaho could not be reached by press time.

One former Gonzaga student, Jordan Mathews, is living in northern Italy, where he plays professional basketball for Vanoli Cremona.

“It’s not like ‘I Am Legend,’ ” Mathews said of the atmosphere in Cremona, referring to the popular Will Smith movie where a plague overtakes Earth. “It’s pretty quiet, and a lot of businesses are closed, but people are just taking necessary precautions.”

League games have been suspended, and Mathews, who joined Vanoli Cremona in 2019, said he doesn’t know when they will resume.

Since the virus spread to Italy, a person walking around without a mask is uncommon, and Mathews said when he went to the pharmacy on Wednesday a mask was required.

“People aren’t really scared yet,” Mathews said. “There’s a general sense of worry, but it’s not really as bad as you see on the news.”