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Coronavirus reaches New Mexico; campus remains open for now

BREAKING NEWS UPDATE: A fourth New Mexico resident has tested “presumptive positive” for COVID-19, according to a press release issued by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office. This most recent case is described as a “woman in her 60s from Santa Fe County with known recent travel to the New York City area.”

The New Mexico Department of Health reported Wednesday there are three presumptively positive coronavirus cases in the state of New Mexico as the virus, COVID-19, continues to spread in the U.S. and in countries around the world. In light of the three new cases, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a public health emergency in the state Wednesday morning.

An outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) stemming from China has made its way to New Mexico. The NMSU campus remains open for now, but classes could be moved online if the threat of infection continues to rise. (Photo courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

COVID-19 is a strand of coronavirus that causes respiratory issues, according to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was originally detected in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. According to the CDC, symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath, and can appear anywhere from two to 14 days after being exposed to the virus.

The CDC has said the virus spreads mainly from the transmission of droplets, such as from coughs or sneezes. The CDC has indicated the people most vulnerable to contracting the virus are the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.

Gov. Lujan Grisham said in a press conference Wednesday the three presumptively positive cases in New Mexico were reported early Wednesday morning and are all travel-related. Two cases are located in Socorro County and one case in Bernalillo County.

In a press release issued Wednesday morning by Gov. Lujan Grisham’s office, the New Mexico residents infected were described as a “husband and wife, both in their 60s, with known recent international travel to Egypt,” and a woman with ” known recent travel to the New York City area.” All three individuals are trying to self-quarantine to contain the virus.

Lujan Grisham also indicated there is no sign of community spread at this point.

“If you want to minimize what happens now, we minimize human exposure. We contain the virus. The states that do that the best will in fact have the very best outcome,” Lujan Grisham said. “We are not panicked, we are prepared. We are calm and smart and productive. We are proactive.”

“Within Level-2, the most likely scenario will be the request to move academic activities to online settings. If the request comes, faculty should not be surprised and they should be ready to transition.”

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, declared the virus a pandemic Wednesday morning. This means the virus has been found in large or numerous areas of the world.

“WHO has been assessing this outbreak around the clock and we are deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity, and by the alarming levels of inaction,” Ghebreyesus said in a media briefing. However, he said some areas are showing decreasing numbers. “Of the 118,000 cases reported globally in 114 countries, more than 90 percent of cases are in just four countries, and two of those — China and the Republic of Korea — have significantly declining epidemics.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, March 11, there have been 90 people tested in New Mexico with three cases testing positive, according to the New Mexico Department of Health. Tests were sent to the CDC for official confirmation of the virus.

Surrounding states — including Colorado, Texas and Arizona — all have reported cases. The states of Washington, California and New York have the highest numbers of reported cases in the country, according to the CDC.

As of March 11, the CDC reports 938 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the U.S. with 29 reported deaths.  Out of that number, 92 cases are travel-related and 75 cases have been spread via “close contact.”

The U.S. Department of State has issued Level 4 travel advisories for several countries due to concern over the spread of COVID-19. These countries include China and Iran. Level 4 is the highest travel advisory level and means people should not travel to these areas. The state department has issued lower level advisories for Italy, South Korea, Japan, Egypt and Azerbaijan, among others, which encourage people to “reconsider travel” or “exercise increased caution.”

The Las Cruces Sun-News reported Wednesday morning that two New Mexico State University students are currently self-quarantining after returning from studying abroad in Italy. It is not confirmed that they have the virus, but are isolating themselves in case symptoms arise.

Rumors also surfaced Wednesday afternoon that an NMSU student may have been in contact with the infected Socorro County couple, but those rumors have not been substantiated.

Many universities across the U.S. have transitioned from in-person to online classes to help stop the spread of the virus. According to data collected by Bryan Alexander, a scholar with Georgetown University and a higher education consultant, around 50 universities have altered their class schedules, including Harvard University, Vanderbilt University and San José State University.

In a mass email sent out Wednesday evening to all NMSU students and employees, NMSU Chancellor Dan Arvizu stated the following: “The NMSU system will remain open, and will continue to monitor and respond to recommendations from state and federal officials.” The email message also indicated NMDOH and the New Mexico Higher Education Department were “not advising any college or university campuses to close.”

NMSU’s 2018 All Hazards Community Operations Plan has steps in place to address a communicable disease. The university is currently operating at a “Level 1” response level (out of three levels), according to Enrico Pontelli, dean of the College or Arts and Sciences, in an email sent out to department heads March 10.

This means the university continues to function normally, but those who are sick are encouraged to stay away from others until they are better. If NMSU were to move its response level up to Level 2, the university could potentially move most or all classes online.

“Within Level-2, the most likely scenario will be the request to move academic activities to online settings. If the request comes, faculty should not be surprised and they should be ready to transition,” Pontelli stated in the email.

Lujan Grisham encouraged people to wash their hands frequently with soap and water and to stay home if they feel sick. She also recommended reducing contact with other people as much as possible by staying away from public events and reconsidering travel. She said if someone presents symptoms or thinks they may have the virus, they should refrain from visiting a doctor in person and call instead, unless the situation is an emergency. By staying isolated, the possibility of spreading the virus in medical facilities and elsewhere is minimized.

“The decisions that you make as individuals and families quite literally support the state to manage this in the most productive manner, and in fact will save lives,” Lujan Grisham said. “And that’s my expectation. That New Mexicans will come together like we always do — that we will protect each other.”

The New Mexico Department of Health is managing a coronavirus hotline for New Mexicans to use if they have questions, concerns or if they think they may have contracted the virus. The hotline can be reached at 1-855-600-3453.

Additionally, NMSU has published a COVID-19 website, where the latest information affecting the campus community will be posted as it becomes available.

Chancellor Arvizu has also encouraged NMSU community members to “consider canceling or postponing planned trips.” Additionally, in Arvizu’s March 11 email message, he requested that anyone who plans to travel internationally or has traveled internationally within the last 14 days fill out NMSU’s online travel questionnaire.

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