Local, state leaders hold panel at KU to dispel myths about coronavirus

photo by: Conner Mitchell

Linda Craig, Douglas County's director of clinic services, speaks on Friday Feb. 14, 2020 on the worldwide coronavirus disease outbreak.

Local and state officials held a public forum Friday at the University of Kansas hoping to dispel myths associated with the coronavirus disease that caused a scare in Lawrence recently.

The virus, which can cause severe respiratory illness, has infected nearly 50,000 people and killed nearly 1,400 people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. It hit home briefly at the end of January when Lawrence’s hospital announced that it was treating a patient who showed symptoms after returning from the Wuhan province of China, where the virus originated. Testing later determined that the person did not have the disease.

First and foremost among the myths addressed Friday at KU was how the disease can spread.

The disease reportedly broke out from a so-called “wet market” in the Wuhan area that sold live animals, which were often killed on site. World health officials have said that, despite some narratives about the virus only being transmitted through the consumption of an infected animal, such as a bat, the virus can spread through any contact or handling of the animal. Humans can then transmit the respiratory disease to one another through close contact.

“I’ve been told that it’s in the saliva of bats. We do know that the bats aren’t killed by the virus, they are the hosts, but are not killed by it,” Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Lee Norman said during Friday’s forum. “It seems to be best transmitted through the saliva and feces.”

The panel also focused on dispelling the idea that the virus had a proclivity for infecting people from China or that people from China were responsible for spreading it.

Charlie Bankart, KU’s associate vice provost for international affairs, told the Journal-World he had actually been monitoring the newspaper’s comment section to see how Lawrence residents had responded to the January scare. Bankart said that during that period, he was disappointed to see a lot of anti-China sentiment, but he said he was grateful that, to his knowledge, those feelings hadn’t been lobbed at any of KU’s international student population.

“I haven’t heard of specific instances on campus where those sentiments have been articulated,” Bankart said. “A virus doesn’t know race, it doesn’t understand citizenship, it doesn’t care. Any assumptions or behavior that makes that false connection needs to be addressed immediately.”

Bankart said that while the university hadn’t heard of any discriminatory behavior, officials were prepared to address incidents if they arose.

“We’re a tight community,” he said. “There’s no room for that kind of attitude.”

As part of the university’s response to the worldwide outbreak, which increased exponentially while the campus community was on its winter break, KU Chancellor Douglas Girod issued a universitywide travel ban to China on Jan. 31.

And as part of the intake process for international students who came to KU from China for the first time or returned from the holiday break, Watkins Health Services screened every student upon their arrival in the United States.

To date, the campus health provider has screened 196 students for any health concerns, Watkins Health Services interim chief of staff Pavika Saripalli said Friday.

There are no active cases that have been found in or around the state of Kansas, and all students and campus visitors are beyond the 14-day incubation period where the virus is at its most dangerous, she said.

The university will not re-open travel to China until the CDC or World Health Organization declare the outbreak is over, Saripalli said,

And while coronavirus is something to keep an eye on, she said, the flu is of a much more present danger to campus and the United States as a whole.

About 14,000 people have died of influenza and about 250,000 have been hospitalized, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that have been reported by the Associated Press. Watkins is still offering flu shots, Saripalli said.


Welcome to the new LJWorld.com. Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.