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COVID-19

News >  Education

WSU calls home students from Italy over coronavirus fears

March 2, 2020 Updated Wed., March 4, 2020 at 12:31 p.m.

Paramedics stand by a tent that was set up outside the emergency ward of the Cremona hospital, northern Italy, Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. The region of Lombardy has been the epicenter of Italy’s outbreak, registering the first positive test, and most alarmingly, 10% of Lombardy’s doctors and nurses are out of commission, because they tested positive for the virus and are in quarantine, said the region’s top health official, Giulio Gallera, Monday, March 2, 2020. (Claudio Furlan / AP)
Paramedics stand by a tent that was set up outside the emergency ward of the Cremona hospital, northern Italy, Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. The region of Lombardy has been the epicenter of Italy’s outbreak, registering the first positive test, and most alarmingly, 10% of Lombardy’s doctors and nurses are out of commission, because they tested positive for the virus and are in quarantine, said the region’s top health official, Giulio Gallera, Monday, March 2, 2020. (Claudio Furlan / AP)
By Chad Sokol and Emma Epperly The Spokesman-Review

It’s been a stressful week in Milan for Quinn Cooney.

The 20-year-old Washington State University student, who is pursuing a degree in fashion marketing, arrived in Italy’s second-largest city about a month ago for a coveted internship at a high-end clothing boutique. She was expecting to start classes this week at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, the largest private university in Europe.

But fears over the novel coronavirus – which has sickened more than 2,000 people in Italy, killing 52 – have cut Cooney’s study-abroad trip short. On Saturday morning, she and at least two other WSU students in Italy received an email from the university urging them to return to the United States.

The U.S. Department of State issued a Level 3 travel advisory for Italy, meaning people should reconsider visiting the country. And for the northern regions of Veneto and Lombardy, which includes Milan, the warning was raised to Level 4, meaning “Get out now.”

“The Department of State warning level indicates a level of risk that is beyond what Washington State University is willing to accept,” Kelly Newlon, WSU’s director of global learning, wrote in the email. “It is requested that you return to the U.S., or at least leave areas affected by COVID-19.”

COVID-19 is the disease caused by the new coronavirus – a respiratory illness similar to the common cold or flu, with symptoms that include coughing, fever and shortness of breath. On Monday, the World Health Organization was reporting 3,056 deaths from the virus and more than 89,500 confirmed cases, with the vast majority in China, where the outbreak originated late last year.

WSU spokesman Phil Weiler said the university was heeding the advice of the State Department and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Our concern is we want to make sure that students don’t get stuck in a particular country,” Weiler said. “We believe that it’s safest and smartest for students to return.”

Newlon directed the students in Italy to return to their permanent addresses. For Cooney, that means going to her parents’ house in San Diego, where she plans to self-quarantine at home for the next two weeks.

During a phone call from her apartment in Milan after 3 a.m. Tuesday, she was busy packing her belongings to catch one of the last flights back to the United States. Major airlines, including Delta, are suspending flights to and from Italy due to concerns about the virus.

“This past week has been crazy,” Cooney said, describing a series of communications with WSU and SAI Programs, the private company that organized her study-abroad trip.

“I really have not heard anything other than we need to get out now,” she said.

Losing her internship at the boutique may be a major setback in her academic career. Her curriculum requires her to complete an internship by the end of her junior year.

Cooney said one other WSU student has been studying in Milan. She said that student plans to stay in the city, where she lives with a host family and works as a nanny. Cooney hopes the public health scare subsides soon.

“There’s a possibility that we’re going to be able to come back if the threat level goes down,” she said.

As for any concerns about contracting the new coronavirus, Cooney noted there’s also a high chance of catching the common flu. She said she’s more concerned about the logistical challenges that a COVID-19 diagnosis would bring.

WSU said students should ask their study-abroad organizers about getting refunds or transferring to other countries where the virus is less of a concern. The university did not recall students studying abroad in other countries.

Weiler said WSU has a team of experts meeting daily to prepare for potential impacts of the coronavirus.

“This is something that we need to address and that we need to address on a system level,” he said. “It’s going to impact different campuses in different ways. We really are trying to make sure that everybody gets the same information at the same time.”

A faculty member at WSU’s Vancouver campus was taking precautions Monday after a family member was exposed to the virus. The faculty member will not return to work until the relative is cleared after a period of monitoring. Weiler said the faculty member’s office and classroom were disinfected over the weekend.

Last week, Gonzaga University called home students taking part in the school’s study-abroad program in Florence, Italy, about 180 miles south of Milan. A person affiliated with Gonzaga was tested for the virus over the weekend, though the Spokane Regional Health District confirmed that person did not take part in the Florence program. Results of the testing had not been returned as of Monday evening.

Seattle University announced Monday a student had close contact with a person diagnosed with COVID-19. The university said the student was not showing symptoms but would self-quarantine for 14 days, per CDC guidelines. The university said it disinfected areas of campus where the student had been present on Friday.

Other Spokane-area universities have not asked students to return home from study-abroad trips. Officials at Eastern Washington and Whitworth universities said they have no students studying in areas heavily affected by the virus.

Claire Comiskey contributed to this report.

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