Was he on campus, or wasn’t he?
That was the question being whispered around the University of Massachusetts-Boston campus early this week, as a student there was held in quarantine with a case of the 2019 novel coronavirus.
Initial indications were that the young man in question would recover from a condition that has been linked to at least 361 deaths in China but has yet to claim any lives in the United States. But some in the college community wondered just how transparent the administration had been about the student’s presence and their potential contact with him.
At the same time, they expressed concern about racism against students of Asian descent.
The identity of the 20-something patient was being withheld by the state health and university officials, who confirmed the case—the eighth in the United States at the time—late Friday, announcing it to the public Saturday. According to a press release from the Massachusetts Department of Health, the student recently returned from Wuhan, China—the epicenter of the epidemic—had been isolated, and his “few close contacts have been identified and are being monitored for any sign of symptoms.”
School officials suggested in an email sent to students that the infected individual did not live in a dorm (nor on campus), was “being isolated at an off-campus location,” and “did not participate in any classes or campus activities last week.” Interim Chancellor Katherine S. Newman also wrote to students that she expected “business as usual” on campus.
But UMass Boston students canvassed by The Daily Beast were alternately confused and worried as to whether he had actually been in their midst since being infected.
“I haven’t been able to find out if he was actually at the school or not,” said Frank Novak, 21 a junior and computer science major, who added that he learned about the incident over text and from a university email while he spent the weekend with family in Mashpee, Massachusetts.
Novak said he’d been searching Twitter for more information, and when speaking to The Daily Beast on Sunday morning, had concluded that the student probably had not been on campus. He said he was not nervous but, “I will be if he was actually at the school.”
In fact, DeWayne Lehman, director of communications for the college, later confirmed to The Daily Beast that the student did go to the university health clinic before being diagnosed.
“Yes, it was campus,” Lehman told The Daily Beast, adding that the university was working with the state and city’s public health commission, who in turn were all operating under CDC guidelines. He added that the university had taken measures to sanitize their one campus health clinic but noted, “I can’t tell you specifically what those are.”
The University did not respond to further requests for comment on students’ concerns about transparency, other than to highlight an FAQ. That document included a warning not to visit the health center for students who recently visited China or suspected they had been in contact with someone infected with coronavirus.
The UMass Boston campus is located on an isolated and infamous peninsula, Columbia Point. The small stretch of land was once home to the city’s first ever sewage-pumping station, a penitentiary for Italian prisoners of World War II, and the housing complexes where Boston’s infamous gang the Columbia Point Dawgs reigned in the '80s.
Aishwary Shrestha, a UMass freshman, told The Daily Beast she was concerned when she first learned a student at her school had the coronavirus. But then her friend reminded her the flu has affected—indeed, killed—far more people. Still, she wanted to take precautions. “We went to CVS to get masks and hand sanitizers and they all ran out,” she told The Daily Beast. She added that she planned to go to the campus health center to get more.
She was not aware that the infected student went to the same campus health center. “That’s scary,” Shrestha said Sunday. But she added, “I’m sure they took precautions.”
Bobby Lovett, a 19-year-old freshman, said he found out there was a confirmed case of coronavirus in Boston on CNN, but didn’t know the patient went to his school until he saw UMass Boston trending on Twitter.
Lovett said his main concern was an uptick of racism on campus, hints of which he said he’d been seeing online, echoing reports around the world.
“I do feel for a lot of my friends who are Asian who are being put in this predicament… because we already deal with little bits of racism as it is, and it gets more discomforting when people say this stuff,” Lovett said, adding that his mother was Chinese. “It’s not like any of the rest of us who are Asian and just walking around campus would have contracted this disease.”
Jordan Toglan, 24, a sophomore, was on campus to rent a laptop Sunday. She first heard that a student at UMass Boston had the coronavirus on Saturday around 2 p.m. on Twitter, she said.
“The first headline suggested that the student had already been [on campus] and then was confirmed with coronavirus and I was, like, freaking out because we have this app called Wildfire and there were a few posts that said that the student was here and everyone was freaking out like, ‘Oh, everyone is going to be sick.’”
Toglan said that after reading the email sent out by the school and calling the hotline number provided, “I figured out that he hadn’t even come to campus, so that’s what I understand.”
“Obviously I was freaked out, but I’m still here.”
When Toglan was informed that the patient had been on campus, if only briefly, she was surprised: “Why wouldn’t they tell us that they did?”
Toglan continued, “It just seems like something you probably shouldn’t not tell people, especially since it’s an international school and there are so many kids going in and out of dorms now.”
Davidson Hamer, a professor of global health and medicine at Boston University, said that if the infected student “had gone to a clinic and was seated in a waiting room, there is some potential for some other students—or health care workers at the clinic—to be exposed.”
But he added that the university's reasons for being discreet about putting out information were likely less than nefarious. “I suspect that U-Mass does not want to raise the level of concern for its students and health care workers (HCWs) at the campus clinic,” he wrote in an email.
Because the student was reportedly being quarantined at home, the case was likely not a severe one, according to Hamer. “This young man doesn't look like he’s too ill,” he said.
There have only been 11 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S., the CDC confirmed Monday, but this was at least the second case to be connected to a college campus. Arizona State confirmed someone in its community had coronavirus on January 26.
Students Nicola Rose, 23, and Bella Baidak, 21, gathered on campus before class Monday with an air of indecision.
“We have these masks here,” said Baidak, pointing to her purse. “We took them off because we were feeling a bit dramatic. But I’m not sure if we were being too dramatic or being just dramatic enough.”
“I don’t think it’s a cause for concern that a student that may go here may have it, but apparently they didn’t actually come to the campus,” added Nicola Rose, who asked the Beast not to use her last name for fear of repercussions from the university.
When informed that the student had in fact been on campus, Nicola Rose was perturbed.
“I saw in the email that he didn’t attend classes and he didn’t attend school activities, but then to not inform students that they were on campus,” she said. “I think that they are trying to reduce the amount of people that are afraid but it’s still, like, we deserve to be informed.”