Lindsay Rubin’s study abroad in China hasn’t panned out quite like she dreamed of as a child — at least not with the emergence of a novel coronavirus that has caused a global public health emergency and the closure of numerous Chinese tourist sites, businesses, and even places to eat.
The Edina native, who is studying engineering at Purdue University, recalled walking with hungry classmates in Xi’an, China, and passing numerous closed restaurants until they found a dimly lit and open McDonald’s.
“We literally jumped for joy and shouted,” Rubin said.
While the primary concern over the coronavirus outbreak is its health threat — having been linked to nearly 10,000 infections in China, and more than 200 deaths — its ripple effects include disruptions to businesses, tourism, and even study abroad education.
The University of Minnesota announced Friday that it has postponed its travel programs in China and recommended that staff and faculty stay away from the country for now. Two U students returned home early from ongoing study abroad classes. While the students were far from the epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, they left, in part, because flights back to the U.S. were growing scarce.
The World Health Organization on Thursday announced a global public health threat due to the new strain of coronavirus that has spread to at least 26 other nations. Six cases have been reported in the U.S.
Minnesota has no cases, but the state has sent three lab samples to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from people who suffered respiratory symptoms and fevers after recent travels to China. Testing found two of the patients didn’t have the virus. The third is pending. Nationally, 114 of 120 lab samples tested so far have been negative for the virus — with many suspect patients simply having seasonal influenza.
Federal health leaders are concerned because the virus is new and initially spread from animals to people, but it now appears to be spreading from person to person as easily as influenza. However, they stressed that it is not spreading from person to person within the U.S., and that people need not wear masks or take any precautions that they wouldn’t otherwise to prevent infection with common influenza.
“Please do not let fear or panic guide your actions,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the CDC’s director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
Rubin arrived with classmates on Jan. 6 with plans to stay in China through the summer if she could secure an internship or research project. Plans started to change quickly amid the outbreak news. Classes were temporarily canceled and the students found themselves with little to do but stay in their hotel rooms on a campus of Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
A two-week trip to Beijing, Xi’an and the Zhangjiajie National Forest was scuttled midway because major tourist attractions and the park were closed. Rubin said she kept busy playing games and watching movies — venturing out for provisions, or to occasionally eat out. Owners of open shops have temperature guns to check customers for fever, she said.
“Everyone wears masks,” she added. “Even when you’re trying to talk to a cashier they won’t let you take it off.”
China is the fifth-leading destination for U.S. study abroad programs, hosting more than 12,000 U.S. students each year, according to the Institute of International Education. Suspensions of these programs for the coming semester come as many airlines suspend flights. Delta Air Lines announced it would halt flights to China for three months starting Feb. 6.
The federal government also has declared a public health emergency, temporarily barring entry into the U.S. of foreign nationals believed to be a risk of transmitting the virus, and requiring Americans returning from the Wuhan region to be quarantined for 14 days to make sure they aren’t infected.
The government already has quarantined 195 people in California who were airlifted out of Wuhan. That is the first such federal quarantine order since the 1960s when a group of at-risk people were evaluated for smallpox.
There are no definitive plans to cancel other U study abroad programs, but officials will continue to monitor the spread of the virus to other countries, said Kevin Dostal Dauer, director of health, safety and compliance at the university’s Global Programs and Strategy Alliance.
Rubin, 20, said she was hoping to stay in China and was feeling safe, given the government precautions and the fact that the coronavirus so far appears harsher on older and sick people.
But it was the middle of the night in China and she was sleeping when airlines in the U.S. started canceling flights. She was rousted from bed at 9 a.m. Saturday with news that she and her classmates were returning immediately to the U.S. Purdue decided to bring her and her classmates back while it was still possible.
The Associated Press and Michelle Griffith, a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune, contributed to this report.