USC confirms false alarm after coronavirus scare

An email sent out by an off-campus housing manager causes uneasiness in USC community over the potential virus outbreak

USC has confirmed that the report of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus at USC off-campus housing complex Monday was false.

The Lorenzo, the student apartment near USC, emailed its residents about a coronavirus case Monday night. “Tonight, a resident was transported to a local hospital for treatment and diagnosed with the coronavirus out of China,” Lorenzo’s General Manager Chance Kidd wrote. There was no official update on the novel coronavirus from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at that time.

After the email caused panic among USC students, Annenberg Media contacted the Department of Public Safety and USC Student Health, both of which denied the report of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus at The Lorenzo.

DPS Assistant Chief David Carlisle and USC Chief Health Officer Sarah Van Orman told Annenberg Media around 11:40 p.m. that the information in the email was incorrect. Carlisle confirmed that no one in Lorenzo has been diagnosed with the coronavirus. He said a person was transported to a hospital and had been released.

Later, in two Trojan Alert emails sent to the USC community, DPS clarified that no one in the housing complex had been diagnosed or was under evaluation for the virus. There were reports of firetrucks outside of Lorenzo Monday night. In the second email, DPS said “we want to provide information about reports that a student was transported by ambulance from off-campus housing this evening with novel coronavirus. Because of student and patient privacy laws, we are unable to talk about any specific individuals. However, we can confirm that there are no students or residents from the off-campus Lorenzo Apartments diagnosed or under evaluation for the 2019 novel coronavirus. Students can be transported by ambulance for a variety of health conditions.” According to Monday DPS daily log, “a student was transported to a local hospital for medical treatment after complaining of a sore throat and fatigue” at Lorenzo between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.

About two hours after the initial email, Kidd sent to all Lorenzo residents a correction email with an apology for the false alarm. “We apologize for the alarm as we tried to communicate updates as quickly as possible,” Kidd wrote. “I personally spoke with Dr. Sarah Van Orman, USC’s Chief Health Officer, and confirmed that no one affiliated with USC or The Lorenzo has developed the illness.”

Annenberg Media reached out to The Lorenzo for comment but received no response by the time of publication.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health told Annenberg Media via email Tuesday morning that “there are no new cases.” The email adds “While Public Health does not confirm suspect cases, Public Health will notify the media and the public when there is a positive case of novel coronavirus in Los Angeles County.”

There are 18 international locations that have identified cases of the new virus, including the United States. Originated in Wuhan City, the virus has killed more than 100 people and sickened about 4,600 in China.

On Jan. 21, CDC announced the first case of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus in the United States in the Washington States. As of this article publication, there are in total of five confirmed cases in America. The other four include two in California, one in Arizona and one in Illinois. There is no known connection from affected individuals with USC, according to Van Orman.

Van Orman explained the procedure of diagnosing and notifying the novel coronavirus to Annenberg Media in a phone call. For every patient who has traveled from the affected area and has symptoms, the health provider, such as USC Student Health, would apply a detailed checklist provided by the LA County Health Department to screen the patient. If the patient meets all the criteria, the health provider will inform hospital epidemiologists and Los Angeles County Public Health, who will talk to the patient and review relevant documents. If the public health experts consider it a “suspected case,” the hospital will send the patient’s samples to CDC for a coronavirus test. “They’re the only place in the country that’s doing the testing right now,” Van Orman said. The process takes hours and the patients “stay right where they are” and “are put in isolation.”

Later, the CDC will send the test result back to the LA County Health Department. “LA County would be the only people who would notify the hospital where the patient is, and they would send out the press release to the community. And then they would also notify USC,” Van Orman said.

“It’s only the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who do the tasks, who make a diagnosis. It’s only the local county health department who really gets to know that somebody has it,” she said.

But for the majority of the time, even when someone was suspected, the result actually turns out to be negative, Van Orman said. “So I think it’s really important for people to understand what the process would be. There are many, many experts involved in it, and there’s a very coordinated process for making any kind of decision about the fact that there would be a case,” she added.

As of yesterday, there were 110 people who were considered to be suspect cases in the U.S. But only five tested positive, 30 have been negative and the rest are still pending, according to the CDC website.

The outbreak in China also caused some to question whether individual travelers from Wuhan City should be quarantined. Van Orman said that unlike quarantining a region to prevent the virus from spreading, quarantining a person is unnecessary and does not reduce the risk. “If someone returning sick, we do contact trace. We isolate.”

USC Student Health advises anyone who recently traveled from the affected areas in the past 14 days or has had close contact with someone suspected of having the virus to watch for flu-like symptoms. If experiencing symptoms, use a face mask and seek immediate medical care. More information can be found on USC Student Health’s website.

Students who are experiencing increased anxiety or stress related to concerns about family in China may see a counselor; call 213-740-9355 (WELL) to arrange an appointment. USC Counseling and Mental Health Services has expanded availability for international students to talk to a counselor through the “Let’s Talk” series offered regularly from Wednesday to Friday, 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. in the Office of International Students.

USC Student Health reminds all USC members to take precautions to prevent the spread of infectious disease. Flu and other serious respiratory illnesses are commonly spread by cough, sneezing, or unclean hands. Covering nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, handwashing with soap and water and avoiding touching eyes, nose and mouth are proven prevention measures.