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Predicting the path and impact of the coronavirus on colleges in the U.S. is impossible today. Nevertheless, the emergence of hot spots in South Korea, Iran and Italy has moved the world closer to potential pandemic. The U.S. government is responding by asking for $2.5 billion for prevention and response, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has just warned Americans that an outbreak is likely, without a prediction of place or time.

Although we are clearly not in an emergency state on U.S. college campuses, it is time to recognize risk and to prepare.

Colleges have several risk factors for epidemics. We often house large numbers of students together and feed them in communal dining halls. Our classes, athletic events and other activities are large public gatherings. And, as we enter March, many colleges will enjoy spring break, with associated travel offering the opportunity of contact with a wide population, often including international travel by students and faculty, and a return to campus.

Clearly, it is not yet time to set up isolation wards in the gym and serve meals to students in their rooms, but what are the precautions and procedures we should consider now?

As a former president, I believe it is time to prepare for pandemic in at least the following ways:

  • Within one’s executive group, raise awareness. While student affairs and public safety will likely be most immediately impacted, every part of the university may be involved in or affected by a coronavirus epidemic.
  • Auxiliary services like dining and housing need to be specifically considered. Are plans in place for housing and feeding students under infectious conditions? Is training available for staff? What is the availability or acquisition path for protective gear? How do these plans affect independent housing units like fraternities and sororities?
  • Student health and community health providers need to consider how they will monitor for coronavirus, whether test kits and capacity will be available if or when needed, and what CDC guidelines are. Cold and flu-like symptoms take on added significance. How will the common cold be distinguished from possible coronavirus operationally?
  • Consider pedagogic and technological plans to move instruction online.
  • Consider when, or under what circumstances, you will enact a travel ban for students or faculty and how that will relate to bans that the State Department or other government officials may apply.
  • Consider how a pandemic would affect current students studying abroad or researchers working abroad. Will you try to repatriate them or protect them in place, and if so, how?
  • Arrange a preparatory meeting with local public health and safety officials (public health district, hospital administrators, police chief) to ensure that communication and roles are clear.
  • Consult with your governing board or system offices to keep them informed and to coordinate responses if your campus is part of a system.
  • Prepare communications to faculty and staff, students, families, and the public as hold statements and ensure that distribution methods have been considered. Consider positive, preventative communications regarding hygiene or awareness.
  • Your university may have special capacity to assist during an epidemic, particularly if you have an academic health center. It’s likely that the vice president for health affairs is receiving or will receive communications from the Centers for Disease Control and similar entities. How can and should you engage specialized capacity, from patient care to research?

We all hope that the coronavirus is contained and that none of these preparedness steps are necessary. But I have found that each time we prepared our university for an emergency, we were better prepared for the next, unexpected event. So preparation without panic is rarely pointless.

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