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Tensions rise over COVID-19

A CDC laboratory test kit for infection with coronavirus. The kit was found to be flawed, but a replacement has not yet been distributed (photo courtesy The Tribune).

By Mason Glanville

As thousands of Grand Rapids students prepare to disperse around the globe for spring break, the whole world holds its breath while the COVID-19 outbreak evolves into what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has forecasted to turn into a pandemic. 

Today, 82,723 people around the world have contracted the virus, and 2,817 have died. 60 cases have occurred in the U.S., and none of those have been fatal. There are no confirmed cases in Michigan.

However, on Wednesday, the first untraceable infection by the virus was diagnosed in the U.S. The infected person, an individual in northern California, had no identifiable contact with a sick person, and no history of travel to an infected country. 

Health experts say that this means the virus might already be spreading in the United States.

On Tuesday, the CDC changed its attitude toward the disease, and the president delegated response to the disease to Vice President Mike Pence after requesting $2.5 billion to aid in the national effort.

A Tuesday statement made by the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, Nancy Messonnier, charged the national tone with a warning:

“It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen.” 

As they prepare for their spring break, though, GRCC students do not seem too alarmed about the outbreak. 

GRCC student Natalie VanHouwlingen, 19, of Grand Haven is not changing her travel plans. 

“I’m going on a trip tomorrow so I’ll probably wash my hands a little extra at the airport but that’s about it, she said.”

Precious Crawford, another GRCC student, is not worried, but her mother is: “She wants me to get one of those surgical masks.”

The CDC has a bevy of documents available online with information about COVID-19, but it remains clear that not much is known about the virus at this time. Questions about transmission risk and incubation period are still unanswered. Both of these characteristics of the disease will heavily impact the severity of the potential pandemic. 

The CDC website goes so far as to warn that “public health and healthcare systems may become overloaded.” 

What overloaded healthcare means is far from clear. Grand Rapids has one of the highest quality health systems in the country, but an outbreak of a global disease of this scale, in this city, would be unprecedented. 

According to Kent County Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Karla Black, our city has never had to deal with a threat like this. SARS, MERS, EBOLA, and EEE all remained outside of our locale.

Even though the risk to Grand Rapidians remains low for now, GRCC leaders are already making preparations for a strong impact close to home. 

Communications Director Dave Murray made a statement for The Collegiate about the college’s plan to take leadership from Kent County in this situation. 

However, student concern has prompted some professors to discuss potential recoil with their students already. 

In an email interview, Professor Laura Byers stated that she believes the school “could move to an online format on Blackboard fairly easily.” She recalled the “Polar Vortex” of 2019, and the recovery classes made after the extended closing. 

As students embark on a weeklong break from school, during which many will travel, the disease will likely continue to spread and the official response will evolve.

For students to protect themselves from COVID-19, the time-tested advice still stands. Cover your cough and wash your hands.