In many ways, Wednesday felt like spring break had already come to the University of Missouri in Columbia. Two days before the governor would issue a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, students were laying around on the quad, playing wiffle ball, taking dogs for walks; relaxing in the knowledge they wouldn’t have to worry about classes for the rest of the week.
That’s because the university canceled classes to give professors two days to prepare to move all their classes online, in the face of the growing coronavirus pandemic.
Freshman journalism major Corinne Baum recounted, "I was just standing by the side of the student union in shock because we had talked about it but I didn’t expect it until after spring break or at least until after Thursday." Baum is from Washington D.C. and said she wasn't sure what to do next. "If this continues for a certain amount of time, I don’t know if I’m going to be allowed in my dorm or if my in-state will be honored because I might have to go back home for a certain amount of time," Baum said.
The university said Wednesday it wasn't planning on dorms or other campus facilities, but that has happened at other colleges. For now, the university's plan is to hold classes remotely until after the school’s spring break.
Junior Jordan Taranto is majoring in aerospace engineering. He said he understands the precaution, but isn’t looking forward to online courses. "I like to be there physically, be in the presence of the professor," Taranto said. "I mean I like to ask questions after class or before class so I think that helps me a lot, versus online I’m staring at a screen, I’m surrounded by things."
No one at the university has tested positive for COVID-19. However, the announcement came a day after a person who attended a journalism conference in New Orleans tested positive for the virus. About two dozen MU students and faculty also attended that conference. Both Taranto and Baum said they weren’t overly worried about their personal health, because so far senior citizens have seen the worst symptoms.
Christelle Ilboudo, the medical director of infection control and prevention at University of Missouri Health Care said it's important to take precautions regardless of age. "We are getting some reports that those people who are asymptomatic still can transmit the virus and infect other people and just put other people at greater risk," Ilboudo said.
The number of ways the virus can be transmitted – not just coughing and sneezing, but on surfaces as well – poses a problem. And an increase in infections could test the health system’s capacity. Ilboudo said some steps MU Health is prepared to take include, "Limiting visitors, decreasing some of our recreational group activities like our therapy sessions, decreasing some of our elective procedures again so our healthy individuals can stay home and we can really prioritize the hospital for those who are very sick."
During the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, there were confirmed cases of infections on campus, The university announced earlier in the week it was sanitizing residence halls, dining halls and large gathering spaces. At a press conference last week, MU Health Care Chief Clinical Officer Stevan Whitt said the 2009 outbreak was instructional.
"Many of the things we learned were to think ahead, a few notches," Whitt said. "Things like extra ventilators for people who have respiratory difficulties, extra supplies, planning for what if we run out of room where we usually take care of patients, where will we put extra patients."
Ilboudo said MU Health isn’t currently experiencing a shortage of supplies, but other hospitals across the country have.
Research has shown college students are more likely to inaccurately judge risks than the general population, a study on the H1N1 pandemic found their optimism can lead them to take fewer precautions, like washing hands and cleaning surfaces.
On the quad, health sciences major Zoe Clancy and law student Mason Mitchell were studying in the grass with their dog Louie. They both said they didn't have confidence in students self-isolating. "I don’t know how many people are actually going to follow that, those rules," Clancy said. Mitchell added, "if you already look at today everyone’s already out socializing so I don’t think anyone’s heeding the call too seriously yet."
Still, as engineering student Taranto pointed out, there is one thing students have that could make self-isolation less daunting.
"I mean we have the internet. We have the whole internet, I mean there should be no reason anybody should be bored," Taranto said.