First coronavirus cases confirmed in Michigan; fate of classes, study abroad uncertain

Tuesday, March 10, 2020 - 10:22pm

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declares a state of emergency at a press conference Tuesday night.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declares a state of emergency at a press conference Tuesday night. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Michigan Executive Office

Editor’s note: More cases of COVID-19 are being diagnosed daily. Check back at michigandaily.com for updates or at the state’s website https://www.michigan.gov/coronavirus.

Two cases of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 disease have been diagnosed in Michigan. 

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency on Tuesday night.

Whitmer discussed the cases at a press conference with Joneigh S. Khaldun, Michigan’s chief medical executive and chief deputy director for health at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and Capt. Emmitt McGowan of the MSP Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division. 

“I’ve signed an executive order declaring a state of emergency in order to maximize our efforts and assist local government and officials to slow the spread,” Whitmer said. “It’s crucial that Michiganders continue to take preventative measures.”

One case is a woman in Oakland County with a history of international travel, while the other is a man in Wayne County who had traveled domestically. Both individuals are middle aged and both are hospitalized.

Specimens from both patients were collected and sent to the MDHHS Bureau of Laboratories, where they tested positive for coronavirus and were sent to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention for verification. 

To prevent the spread of the virus, Whitmer said people should wash their hands for 20 seconds, replace handshakes with elbow bumps and cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze.

“It has moved into Michigan and I urge all Michiganders to take these recommendations very seriously,” Whitmer said.

Khaldun said the state government will continue to monitor the situation and warned people that the coronavirus is likely to spread across Michigan. Hundreds of people in the state are currently being monitored for the coronavirus. 

“It is very likely that we will see more cases and that there will be community spread,” Khaldun said. 

Khaldun urged all Michigan businesses and schools to develop plans to slow the spread of the disease and protect the community. 

“All business, employers, hospitals and schools and universities should be making plans and appropriately preparing for this disease,” Khaldun said. “We’ve been working very closely with our partners across the state for several weeks on these preparations.”

At least eight states including Washington, California and New York are declaring states of emergency in response to local outbreaks. 

When asked if schools across the state would be closed down, Whitmer said no decisions had been reached yet. Several dozen colleges across the country have canceled in-person classes in response to the virus, including Harvard University and Ohio State University

A petition circulated on Tuesday calling on the University of Michigan to follow suit. As of 11 p.m. on Tuesday, the petition has nearly 4,000 signatures. 

“Why are we being reactive instead of proactive?” the petition reads. “We should not wait for the first confirmed case of 2019-nCoV in Ann Arbor to take action. That’s the kind of mistake that’s put many areas in a dire state. This is a plea for the University of Michigan to move classes online now.”

The University’s Office of Public Affairs did not respond immediately to request for comment.

In an email to students on Tuesday, the Center for Global and Intercultural Study’s senior health and safety adviser Rachel Reuter said there is a “strong possibility” that CGIS will cancel its spring and summer study abroad programs due to concerns over coronavirus. University of Michigan officials will decide whether to cut the programs by the end of the week, according to the email.

Reuter noted the spread of the virus to more than 100 countries and the rapid increase in the number of cases.

“As a result many countries, including the US, are considering or have already implemented responses that include restrictions on mobility, cancellation of public events and the temporary closure of educational institutions to help slow the spread of the virus,” Reuter wrote. “As a result of the rapidly evolving situation, officials from across the University of Michigan are meeting to determine whether or not to cancel spring/summer study abroad programs, and we fully expect to provide you with a decision by the end of this week at the very latest.”

CGIS offers more than 140 programs in over 50 countries and allows participants to fulfill degree and language requirements while studying abroad. 

The continued spread of the virus has led to a series of cancelations and restrictions of University programs abroad for countries with a Level 3 Travel Health Notice from the Centers for Disease Control, which urges avoidance of all nonessential travel. In January, the University issued a travel restriction for China, discontinuing University-affiliated travel to the country and only allowing graduate students to travel with an approved safety plan. The school followed up with a travel restriction for South Korea in late February, expanding to include Iran and Italy. 

In an email sent to LSA students on March 8, LSA Dean Anne Curzan noted the disruption caused by the travel restrictions.

“Winter study abroad programs in countries with a CDC Level 3 Notice have been canceled, and we will be working with affected students to try and arrange completion of coursework through alternative means,” Curzan wrote. “We will continue monitoring the situation so that we can make appropriate arrangements if additional countries rise to CDC Level 3. We will send out updates as soon as possible about spring/summer study abroad programs.”

Reuter also warned students to refrain from buying airline tickets.

“I know how difficult and frustrating this is, but given the gravity of the situation regarding COVID-19 and our dedication to providing students with a healthy, safe and academically enriching study abroad experience, the University needs this time to gather relevant information and consider many factors in order to make as judicious a decision as possible,” Reuter wrote.

Students have struggled to adjust their plans in response to the travel restrictions.

LSA sophomore Hanna Smith was signed up for the Spanish 230 program in Granada, Spain — which allows students to complete their final two required semesters of the LSA foreign language requirement — but now the fate of this program is uncertain. Smith said while she understands the need to take precautions, she needs the credits from the program.

“It would be unfortunate because myself and a lot of people have to fulfill a language requirement, besides the fact that it would be an amazing experience to be able to go,” Smith said. “But also I do recognize the severity of the situation and while it is really unfortunate that I might not be able to go, I understand it’s more important to take precautions.”

LSA junior Rayna Shamah was planning on studying abroad in Costa Rica during the upcoming spring term and Turks and Caicos for summer term to complete the language and natural science requirements. Shamah, who said she also planned to graduate a semester early in order to save on tuition costs, now doubts that she will be able to graduate early due to the CGIS cancellations.

“If the programs were canceled I would definitely not be able to graduate early, because I would need those 12 credits to graduate,” Shamah said. “I was extremely disappointed. I think the main reason is just because it’s kind of early. I know the University wants to take care of its students, that’s the main priority, but we don’t know anything about the virus, if it’s a seasonal virus. It’s just really early.”

Shamah said she hoped the programs would not be canceled but also said she understood the precautions the University is taking. 

“They’re once in a lifetime experiences,” Shamah said. “We’re not going to be able to live with a host family again, especially during college.”

Managing News Editor Leah Graham can be reached at leahgra@umich.edu. Daily News Editor Liat Weinstein can be reached at weinsl@umich.edu and Daily News Editor Alex Harring can be reached at harring@umich.edu.