This is a breaking news story and will be updated as necessary.
UPDATE, Feb. 28, 2020 @ 4:10 pm: Students who were supposed to go on the Italy spring break trip were informed via email that they would be receiving a $1,400 refund and the value of their United Airlines ticket back.
Seton Hall University abruptly canceled all spring break study abroad trips Wednesday evening, citing the rapidly spreading outbreak of the coronavirus abroad. The cancellations come on the heels of dire warnings from U.S. healthcare officials who are now warning of a possible pandemic and imminent community transmission within the United States.
According to an email from the Provost’s Office, the cancellation does not apply to study abroad trips that have already departed but the announcement “encouraged those on the trip to strongly consider returning home as soon as feasible.” As of press time, it is unclear how many students are abroad on Seton Hall sanctioned study abroad trips or where they are.
The cancellation also does not apply to non-University study abroad programs.
Seton Hall previously halted its China M.B.A. program and ceased class meetings at affiliate Chinese intuitions in Beijing, Shanghai and Zhuhai as a result of the outbreak. All of the students enrolled in those courses were Chinese citizens.
“We are taking this action because the health and safety of our students, faculty and employees are of paramount importance,” the email read. “We are asking our faculty trip leaders to contact the travel providers to see what refunds are possible. For credit bearing courses, we are asking faculty members to design alternative course requirements.”
The University cited new warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and “the spread of the coronavirus in a growing number of countries around the world, including China, Italy, Greece and India” as the reason for the cancellations.
One Seton Hall student, a public relations major, who had planned to go on the now canceled Italy trip, said that at one point the University had offered to release the tickets to students, but they would have to go without their faculty adviser.
According to an email from the faculty adviser forwarded to The Setonian by the student “hotels in Sicily and Rome, busses and restaurants cannot provide any refund because they are not located in what has been identified as coronavirus ‘contaminated zones/areas by the Italian Ministry of Health.”
Students will still receive the three credits for the course, according to the email.
“My family could barely afford the trip in the first place,” the student said. “Many students who were supposed to go are in the same boat.”
In response to questions about why the University cancelled the trips so late, University spokeswoman Laurie Pine, said “we’ll provide more updates as we continue to monitor this global health crisis to keep everyone up-to-date and as we implement new guidance from health authorities.”
According to the World Health Organization, which has since declared a global health emergency, there are now over 81,000 confirmed coronavirus infections worldwide as of Wednesday night — 78,000 of which are in China which is at the epicenter of the outbreak. The virus is now believed to have originated from illegal wildlife sold in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019. Globally, nearly 3,000 deaths have been recorded, 2,700 of which were in China.
Once thought to be relatively contained, the virus has sparked new fears of the possibility of a pandemic as cases outside of China have begun to grow, with nearly 30 countries including the United States now reporting instances of coronavirus.
In Italy, cases skyrocketed to 322 infections on Feb. 26, which was 92 more than Feb. 25. Italy currently has the most infections in a country outside of China. So far, 10 deaths have been recorded in Italy alone.
Officials from the CDC warned Americans on Tuesday to begin preparing for the coronavirus to spread within the United States and warned that the world was on the verge of a global pandemic.
“It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when and how many people will be infected,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director in a teleconference.
Additionally, Dr. Nancy Messonnier warned that “disruption to everyday life could be severe,” citing possible school and business closures if community spread is detected in the U.S.
President Trump called the risk to Americans “very low” in a press conference Wednesday night and appointed Vice President Mike Pence to head a task force charged with battling the virus.
According to The Washington Post, the CDC was informed on Wednesday night of the first case of the coronavirus in a person who had not recently returned from a trip abroad or had sustained contact with a confirmed case, indicating that the virus may be spreading in a Northern California community. So far, the CDC has documented 53 cases of coronavirus within the United States.
According to Pine, Seton Hall is currently in the process of formulating a plan to address a potential outbreak of the coronavirus at Seton Hall, but stressed that there have not been any cases in New Jersey so far and the sustained transmission of the virus has not yet been recorded in the United States.
“The University is continuing to monitor the latest information about the coronavirus released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and will take appropriate action as needed,” Pine said. “Seton Hall is coordinating its efforts with the local department of health, New Jersey Department of Health and the CDC.”
Additionally, Pine noted that “Health Services has set up a Coronavirus Corner on its website to provide information and advice on the virus, travel tips and information from the New Jersey Department of Health COVID-19 site.”
Dr. Brian Nichols from Seton Hall’s Department of Biology sought to allay fears and said that people should be cautious of the coronavirus but stopped short of saying anyone should be fearful.
“I really do not see it getting as bad in the U.S. as it is in China,” Nichols said, who has studied SARS, a type of coronavirus which similarly began infecting people in China in 2002 and sparked fears of a possible pandemic. “If it does, it will likely be very similar to seasonal influenza in terms of hospitalizations.”
Nichols also noted that Remdesivir, a possible coronavirus vaccine has entered clinical trials in the United States.
“Hopefully that will yield good results and provide an option for future treatment,” he said.
As for how Seton Hall should be reacting, Nichols advised leniency for student absences from professors and not to “force them to come for an exam if they feel ill.”
“I also think that we should be aware as a campus community that there is a lot of xenophobia associated with this outbreak, and we should do our best as a community to avoid that,” Nichols said. “For example, businesses in New York Chinatown have seen a slowdown in customers due to unfounded fear of getting the virus. It is perfectly safe to walk around Chinatown or any area of the United States without unfounded fear of contracting COVID-19.”
Nicholas Kerr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @NickKerr99.