While there have been no reported cases of the coronavirus within Santa Barbara County or at UC Santa Barbara, the university is actively preparing to respond if a case is confirmed on campus, according to Dr. Ali Javanbakht, UCSB’s interim Student Health Service executive director and medical director.
Coronavirus has infected over 100,000 people since its outbreak in Wuhan, China, last December; over 500 people within the United States have been diagnosed with the virus as of Sunday evening.
Javanbakht said Student Health is strictly adhering to coronavirus guidelines established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), which include monitoring potential cases for trademark coronavirus symptoms — fever and respiratory issues — in conjunction with an individual’s travel history.
Student Health is coordinating directly with the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department, which coordinates with the CDPH; the CDPH reports to the CDC, which then reports to the World Health Organization, Javanbakht said. The chain of command, however, is not a strict hierarchy, he added.
If a student exhibits coronavirus symptoms, Javanbakht said the university would notify the SB County Public Health Department about the potential case, which will advise Student Health as to whether or not to test the individual based on “how suspicious” their case is or the likelihood that they may have coronavirus.
“If it’s a pretty suspicious [case], then the next step is, ‘Okay, who else could have been exposed?’ And if it’s a student, that [case] comes back to us,” Javanbakht said. “And if that student’s symptoms are in line with the guidelines, that’s someone that we need to test.”
But students don’t always go straight to Student Health, Javanbakht said. It’s up to the SB County Public Health Department to notify Student Health if a student exhibits symptoms somewhere else, such as at a local emergency room or urgent care, he explained.
If Student Health and the SB County Public Health Department reasonably suspect that a student may have coronavirus, the public health department will work to pin down who they’ve been in contact with in the past two weeks to “expand that circle,” according to Javanbakht.
As an example, Javanbakht said the SB County Public Health Department would calculate the risk a potentially infected student posed to their classmates by sending someone to campus to survey the features of classroom spaces, including looking at the room’s dimensions and the space between tables or desks to determine which students may have been exposed if a student had coronavirus.
From there, Javanbakht said Student Health would work with the registrar’s office to find people who were potentially exposed to coronavirus and would let them know that “they might need to be tested.”
If a student does test positive for coronavirus, Javanbakht said the SB County Public Health Department would contact individuals who were “close enough to be exposed” and instruct them to isolate themselves and “find their own room separate from everyone else.”
For people who had a low-risk exposure, Javanbakht said they could still go about their day but said that it was important to report symptoms as soon as possible, because “then we need to intervene.”
If UCSB runs out of space to house exposed students, Javanbakht said the SB County Public Health Department will provide the university with additional space.
On top of that, UCSB and Isla Vista are notorious for their often-cramped living situations, so “if people are in close quarters,” Javanbakht said, “that’s absolutely a factor.”
“This stuff tends to live on surfaces, and if you have a lot of people close [to each other] touching the common surfaces, yeah, the risk tends to be higher than someone who’s out on a farm by themselves,” he added, stressing the importance of keeping good hygiene.
To keep the campus community informed about the coronavirus, Student Health has sent a number of emails to the student body in the past two months to quell concerns and provide updates on potential cases.
Behind the scenes, Javanbakht said Student Health has reached out to campus entities that deal with a high volume of students, such as the Housing, Dining & Auxiliary Enterprises, the Department of Recreation and the University Library, to detail hygiene methods that can decrease the spread of coronavirus on campus, such as using hand sanitizer and reminding students to wash their hands.
During a Feb. 13 emergency operations meeting, a number of campus representatives met to discuss a potential response to coronavirus cases on campus, with each representative giving feedback on what resources they could provide in case of an outbreak on campus, Javanbakht said.
Javanbakht also noted that all five UC medical centers and all 10 UC campuses participate in a twice-a-week phone call with the UC Office of the President (UCOP) to share information about positive and potential coronavirus cases.
Student Health is also in contact with the UCOP medical director, who works with the medical directors at each UC campus to inform them about ongoing cases at universities outside the UC and their efforts to treat and contain them.
Going forward, Javanbakht said Student Health is in the midst of preparing a message for the student body about coronavirus and traveling for spring break, as many students are a couple weeks away from packing their bags and leaving Santa Barbara to go home or on vacation.
Javanbakht said the message will warn students about traveling to countries impacted by coronavirus and the possibility of being quarantined in another country or being isolated when returning to campus, he said. It will also include a reminder to report any possible symptoms.
“So between now and the end of spring break, as developments come up, if something changes, if there’s a new area of activity that we need to be concerned about, then we send messages again,” Javanbakht added.
As coronavirus spreads, so does fear, which Javanbakht stressed as the “biggest threat to our campus.” Social media and rumors can instill fears that aren’t real or rational, and news headlines can trigger “fear mongering” if written poorly, he added.
“If all you’re looking at is coronavirus updates, over time, it can give a really distorted view and some people can take on what’s called a catastrophic view — that this is a catastrophe,” he said. “Realistically speaking, right now, the risk to 24,000 students on this campus [is] still relatively low.”
“Again, things might change but overall, right now, go about your day [and] practice good hand hygiene,” Javanbakht said. “We’re doing everything we can.”
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