Coronavirus epidemic impacting UW-Eau Claire students from afar

Travel restrictions have been enacted by UW-Eau Claire to three countries affected by the coronavirus, leaving students studying abroad frustrated.


UW-Eau Claire has suspended student travel to China, South Korea, and Italy amidst the ongoing coronavirus outbreak around the world. The university is currently working with students to find alternative options to cancelled programs (Photo courtesy of UWEC)

Evan Hong

While the ongoing COVID-19 — otherwise known as the coronavirus — outbreak has not yet spread to Eau Claire, students at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire are being impacted by its severity.

The university has suspended student and faculty travel to China after the U.S. State Department raised the travel warning to “Level 4-Do Not Travel” in February. Most recently, the university also suspended travel to South Korea after the Center for Disease Control and Prevention issued a “Warning-Level 3-Avoid Non-essential Travel” notice. 

According to a letter sent to students and faculty by Colleen Marchwick, the director of the Center for International Education, the university has asked four students who were already studying abroad in South Korea to return home. One student who was scheduled to depart for South Korea this week was also notified to stay in the United States.

The illness is also affecting student travel to Europe.

Originally, the university was going to continue to allow travel to Italy, one of the few European countries where the coronavirus has surged, but decided to implement travel restrictions there after the CDC raised the Italian travel warning to Level 3. 

Twelve students currently studying at the Istituto Lorenzo de’ Medici have been recommended by the university to return home as soon as possible. The students will continue their course work at LdM via distance learning.

Looking ahead, UW-Eau Claire has already suspended study abroad programs in Italy and China for the upcoming summer term.

Marchwick said the travel restrictions have created issues for international students looking to travel to Eau Claire in 2020 as well. The majority of international exchange students at UW-Eau Claire are from China, followed by Malaysia. 

Marchwick said a large cohort of 58 students from China are studying on campus this spring. International students often return to their home countries over summer break, but many of those plans for students are still up in the air.

With expectations for new foreign students to arrive in the fall 2020, Marchwick said it has been difficult to gain information from China about incoming scholars.

“Many schools in China are closed right now, so getting things like your high school or college transcript isn’t easy,” Marchwick said. “What we are hoping for is that we can conditionally admit students with scanned documents and then they would have to bring the originals when they arrive.”

Several students traveling to and from Asia through the university were forced to take necessary measures to arrive on U.S. soil before the restrictions were enforced.

“Some students had to re-book tickets so they could get back before the temporary measure went into effect,” Marchwick said.

UW-Eau Claire faculty and staff have been working with outbound students scheduled for China and South Korea to find alternatives for their endeavours. Many students are being given the opportunity to choose a new study abroad program for an upcoming semester, but no price changes will be given to students whose trips were suspended. Regardless, Marchwick said, the frustration for students continues to set in.

“Students have really been planning for this for a long time,” Marchwick said. “I think there is a sense of disappointment that it may not be able to occur.”

The COVID-19 outbreak has taken the world by storm since the end of 2019 and into 2020. The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China and has quickly spread across the globe, with over 90,000 confirmed cases as of early March. Symptoms of the disease include pneumonia, fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Medical experts on campus believe this outbreak could last about a year before it is finally under control. Patricia Kress, the medical supervisor of the clinicians at Student Health Services on campus, compares this epidemic to the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003.

“With SARS, they didn’t know it would happen, but it was over in nine months. It never really got into the US,” Kress said. “With this one, it seems a bit more slippery; a little harder to pin down.”

In case of a potential outbreak on the UW-Eau Claire campus, Student Health Services is already taking precautions to prevent the virus. When students who visit the clinic are symptomatic of the illness, SHS screens them by asking survey questions about their recent travel. The clinic is also fitting their clinicians for face masks to prevent exposure to its employees. 

Kress said a few students have visited Student Health Services with symptoms they thought could have been the coronavirus. All students who voice their concerns that they may have the sickness can have their case reported to the local health department, who relay information back to the university based on testing.

So far, Kress said no students on campus have been confirmed to carry the coronavirus, but she urges students who are feeling similar symptoms to stop in for a visit.

“I admire the students that worry,” Kress said. “They don’t want to have it and pass it along to anyone else.”

Students are advised to wash their hands and use hand sanitizer often. Kress said Purell hand sanitizer can kill the virus upon contact, and the university has already begun to place dispensers all over campus in the wake of the outbreak.

According to recent letters sent out to students and faculty, the university says they will continue to monitor the CDCP and U.S. State Department public health guidelines regarding travel to and from the United States. UW-Eau Claire vows to “keep the campus community updated regarding the impact of the spread of COVID-19 on UW-Eau Claire students studying abroad.”