The diagnosis of a patient with novel 2019 coronavirus at Arizona State University earlier this week has inspired a surging petition to cancel classes at the school’s Tempe campus amid lingering uncertainty about how easily the infection can spread.
The member “of the Arizona State University community who does not live in university housing” had recently returned from traveling in Wuhan, China—the virus’s epicenter—when they were diagnosed with the deadly infection, the Arizona Department of Health Services and the Maricopa County Department of Public Health first announced on Sunday.
The patient is “not severely ill” but will remain in isolation at their Tempe residence for a few days to a few weeks, reported the university’s student newspaper, The State Press. Meanwhile, authorities would investigate the person’s close contacts and anyone else to whom they may have had prolonged exposure, officials said. The virus has infected more than 4,500 people globally and killed more than 100 people in China as of Tuesday morning.
The other confirmed cases stateside include patients in Orange County, California; a man in his 30s in Washington state; a passenger who felt ill after flying into Los Angeles International Airport; and a woman in her 60s in Chicago. All of the U.S. cases involve patients who had recently traveled from Wuhan, and the CDC has not confirmed person-to-person transmission of the virus inside the United States.
Arizona Department of Health Services spokesperson Chris Minnick told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that authorities cannot say whether the university-related patient is a student, professor, administrator, or staff member. But contacts of the patient, like all other confirmed U.S. cases of the virus, will be monitored daily for symptoms of an infection. Minnick also previously said authorities were not yet able to publicly confirm whether there was any classroom contact between the infected individual and any others.
“We’re working with the CDC and the county health department to trace close contacts of the person who has the disease,” Minnick told The Daily Beast.
“The risk to the general public is low at this time,” he added. “We know people at highest risk to this disease are people have traveled to this region in China.”
Even with that assurance, a petition—which had been signed by more than 20,000 people on Tuesday afternoon—called for the school to cancel classes and also increase “preventative measures and safety precautions” for members of the university’s community.
Freshman microbiology student Taskina Bhuiyan wrote on the petition’s page that students “do not feel comfortable attending classes” with the ongoing outbreak “until proper precautions have been taken to ensure the wellbeing” of students.
“The conversation needs to start somewhere,” Bhuiyan wrote in the petition. “Without us making our voices heard, ASU will continue to be ambiguous and fail to provide us with the transparency needed in order to make more informed decisions about our health.”
Another petition signatory, Rose Mulet, wrote, “If ASU cared about our health at all, they wouldn't make us go to an infected campus.”
Other students at the school’s Tempe campus could be seen Monday wearing masks in an apparent effort to protect themselves from the virus, The Arizona Republic reported. Local stores have reportedly sold out of surgical masks in the wake of higher demand, though federal officials have said masks are not necessary to prevent infection for the average American and that the risk of exposure remained low on Tuesday.
Jay Thorne, a spokesperson for the university, confirmed that the case on campus “has led to some anxiety” but denied a need to halt classes or other campus activities and said that administrators have been communicating as transparently as possible in the days following the case’s confirmation.
“We are doing what we recommend others do, which is to follow the recommendations of state and federal health agencies,” Thorne told The Daily Beast. “We’re concerned, and we’re on top of this, and we’re sharing information as soon as we have it.”
“They’re allowed to be concerned,” he continued, referring to the student petition. “That’s normal. What we’re trying to provide is the accurate information from the experts about what the level of risk is and what people can do and to be sure they’re being as prudent as possible.”
Thorne also pointed out that on Tuesday the university, following an update to federal guidelines by the CDC, issued a notice for cancellation of all non-essential travel to China. The school’s president, Michael Crow, banned all “official travel for school business” to the country “until this matter is resolved,” reported The State Press.
“Other than that, there are no changes in classes or in campus activities at the university, and we are not being informed that there is any need for that,” Thorne told The Daily Beast.