2019 Novel Coronavirus: Frequently Asked Questions

Editor's note:

Revised on February 7 to reflect University updates.

By
Columbia Health
February 07, 2020

Columbia University continues to closely follow the coronavirus outbreak that was first identified in Wuhan, China in December. A novel coronavirus is a strain that has not been found in humans before. This coronavirus can lead to fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat, headache, and shortness of breath. 

While a growing number of cases are being diagnosed, the majority are still occurring in China. To date 12 cases have been confirmed in the United States, though none are in New York. The well-being of our community is a top priority for Columbia University and we continue to actively monitor the situation.

This FAQ contains more information about the virus for the Columbia Morningside, Manhattanville, and CUIMC campuses as well as affiliated Teachers College, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Union Theological Seminary.

What is the current status of the virus at Columbia University? 

  • There are currently no identified cases in the Columbia community. 

  • Health authorities throughout the world are focused on this illness and Columbia has highly professional, highly trained medical staff members who are closely following developments, are working closely with other University offices to make well informed decisions, and are committed to protecting the health of the Columbia community.  

What are the current University actions to protect the health of our community? 

  • The University has implemented restrictions regarding travel to China following the guidance of the CDC and US State Department. The University will also follow all federal requirements regarding community members traveling back to the United States. Please remember to register all university travel

  • The University has asked members of the community who have returned from China within the last 14 days to complete a confidential form so we can provide individual guidance around self-isolation protocols.

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the coronavirus an international concern but is recommending member countries follow the current evidence-informed protocols. Columbia will provide updated information should the recommendations be updated. 

  • See below for more detailed information.

Additional Information

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause respiratory illnesses such as the common cold, and more severe illnesses such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).  Coronaviruses commonly circulate in animals and sometimes also infect humans.

The 2019-Coronavirus is believed to have originated from animals. While the mode of transmission remains unclear, limited person-to person transmission appears to be occurring.

The current evidence suggests a typical incubation period (time from exposure of the virus to the development of symptoms) as 2 to 7 days, but up to 14 days in some individuals. 

While there is still much that is unknown about this virus, the prevention steps we use during each cold and flu season are helpful now. Use the following to help reduce the risk for infection: 

  • Wash your hands often using soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after you’ve touched someone who is sick.  If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. 

  • Avoid close contact with people who are experiencing symptoms. 

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands. 

  • If you have cold and cough symptoms, make sure to cover your coughs and sneezes by using the bend of your arm (elbow) or using disposable tissues and immediately disposing of them in the trash. 

  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces

Masks are only recommended for those with symptoms. The evidence regarding using masks for prevention is mixed

The Department of Health and CDC are not currently recommending masks to prevent transmission of this virus. 

Currently, there is no vaccine available to protect against 2019-nCoV.

At this time individuals who have not traveled to China recently and those that arrived from China more than 14 days ago can continue to participate in classes and campus events.

Those that were in China within the past 14 days should complete the confidential information form and Columbia Health will review your submission and provide recommendations.

The University, following guidance from the Department of HealthCDC, and WHO, has not cancelled any activities or events due to the current Coronavirus concerns.  Some departments and student organizations may make the decision to postpone or cancel events, though this is not a University requirement at this time. 

Campus visitors are asked to follow the same protocols as University affiliates.  Those that were in China within the past 14 days should not visit Columbia until they have self-isolated for at least 14 days after leaving China.

Examples of visitors that should follow this guidance include (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Guest lecturers
  • Panel speakers and presenters
  • Prospective students
  • Recruiters for job fairs

If you are unsure if the 14-day self-isolation applies, please email Columbia Health for guidance.

The University is following guidelines from local, state, and federal authorities on all screening and response protocols. These evidence-informed on all screening and response protocols. These evidence-based protocols are the national (and international) standard. 

The University has asked members of the community who have traveled in China within the last 14 days to complete a confidential form so we can provide individual screening and self-isolation recommendations.

As the CDC and WHO issue new guidelines related to coronavirus, the University is adjusting clinical protocols accordingly to rapidly identify, evaluate, and support any students at risk. 

Generally speaking a recommendation to self-isolate means you should stay in your room/apartment and avoid contact with others.  More specifically:

  • Stay home — in your room, your apartment, or your house. Do not go to work, classes, athletic events, or other social gatherings.
  • If you are living in a shared accommodation, do not spend time in shared living spaces and limit contact with those you live with. If you are unable to do this (or live in a double room), contact Columbia Health at 212-854-7426 for assistance with options.
  • Arrange for food to be delivered via friends, Columbia Dining, grocery delivery services, etc.; if you have concerns about this, please contact Columbia Health at 212-854-7426 for assistance.
  • Avoid sharing household items. Do not share drinking glasses, towels, eating utensils, bedding, or any other items until you are no longer asked to self-isolate.
  • Wipe down surfaces (including doorknobs, telephones and bathroom surfaces) frequently with a standard household disinfectant such as Clorox® wipes.
  • Monitor your temperature twice a day.
  • Let us know right away if you develop fever, cough or difficulty breathing by calling 212-854-7426 (Morningside students) or 212-305-3400 (CUIMC students). 
  • Be in touch with your professors and academic advisors so you can make the appropriate arrangements.

A recommendation for self-isolation serves to temporarily separate people who have been in an area of public health concern to help protect their health and that of their community.  A mandatory quarantine is a formal, binding requirement for someone to be separated from other contacts in the interest of public health and may be enforced.  In most cases where self-isolation is recommended, most people willingly comply.

Decisions to implement a mandatory quarantine are made by public health officials. Columbia University is closely monitoring guidelines from federal authorities and will follow all mandatory quarantine protocols if and when they are required.

If a roommate or suitemate received a recommendation to self-isolate, it does not necessarily mean you have an increased risk.  If your residential set up includes individual bedrooms, the person self-isolating should spend most of their time in that space.  Self-isolating individuals can use common spaces but should aim to do so when others are not in the shared areas (living rooms, bathrooms, kitchens, etc.).

If the living situation does not have individual bedrooms, contact Columbia Health at 212-854-7426 for recommendations.

No.  Standard cleaning with common household disinfectants (such as Clorox® wipes) should be sufficient.  As is recommended each year during cold and flu season, be sure to clean high touch areas (e.g. doorknobs, telephones and bathroom surfaces) regularly.

The University has implemented restrictions regarding travel to China following the guidance of the CDC and US State Department. 

At this time outbound travel to other destinations is not impacted, but this may change. If you are currently outside the United States with plans to travel to campus, please follow the guidance and requirement of the US State Department. The US Government has put in place restrictions on travelers coming to the United States from or through China.

Be sure to contact your airline as there have been numerous reported changes to commercial air travel. Also remember to register all university travel

Symptoms related to the novel coronavirus under investigation (2019-nCoV ) include:

  • fever
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • runny nose
  • difficulty breathing

In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia and other complications, especially in infants, older individuals, and in those with underlying health conditions. 

Coronavirus symptoms and cold/flu symptoms are similar. If you have not been to China, chances are you might have a cold or the flu. Students that have symptoms of fever, cough, breathing challenges, and are feeling concerned should call 212-854-7426 for Morningside Medical Services or  212-305-3400 for CUIMC Medical Services

Faculty and staff should call their primary care provider.  

There is no specific antiviral treatment recommended for 2019-nCoV infection. People infected with 2019-nCoV are treated with supportive care to help relieve symptoms.

If you develop a fever and symptoms of respiratory illness, such as cough or shortness of breath, within 14 days after travel from China, or you have had close contact with someone showing these symptoms who has recently traveled to China, please contact your healthcare provider and mention your recent travel or close contact.  Your provider will use the most recent guidance from local, state, and federal authorities to determine if you need to be tested.

At this time the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has granted rights to a limited number of labs to conduct diagnostic and confirmatory tests. 

After following the evidence-informed screening protocols, recommended testing occurs with the local health authorities collecting a specimen and sending an approved lab for testing.

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has been granted authority to conduct tests, though it is possible that some specimens are being sent to the CDC for testing.

If they have a fever, cough, or shortness of breath they should seek medical care immediately. Before going to the provider’s office or emergency room, have them call ahead and tell them about any recent travel and current symptoms. Wash your hands often with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available. 

The University has asked members of the community who have traveled in China on or after January 18, 2020 to complete a confidential form so we can provide individual guidance. Please encourage them to complete the form. There is no additional action required on your part if you were not also in China. 

Given the time of year (cold and flu season), please remember the following prevention strategies:

  • Wash your hands often using soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after you’ve touched someone who is sick.  If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are experiencing symptoms. 
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands. 
  • If you have cold and cough symptoms, make sure to cover your coughs and sneezes by using the bend of your arm (elbow) or using disposable tissues and immediately disposing of them in the trash. 
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces

The University has asked members of the community who have traveled in China on or after January 18, 2020 to complete a confidential form so we can provide individual guidance.

If you have a fever, cough, or shortness of breath: 

  • Seek medical care immediately. Before you go to your primary care provider’s office or emergency room, call ahead and tell them about your recent travel and your symptoms.  
  • Students can contact their campus medical service: Morningside (212-854-7426) or CUIMC (212-305-3400) for an evaluation and recommendations. Faculty, staff, and visitors with concerns should contact their primary care provider or Columbia Health.
  • Stay home unless you are going to seek medical care, avoid contact with others.
  • Avoid further travel until the illness resolves. 
  • Wear a mask if you need to leave your home when sick. 
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing. 
  • Wash hands often with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available. 
  • Do not attend classes or participate in other campus activities.  Contact your academic advisor or department regarding your classes and assignments. 

If you have no symptoms: 

  • Complete the confidential form so we can evaluate your potential risk.
  • Monitor yourself for symptoms and seek medical care if you develop a fever, cough, or shortness of breath. 
  • If you have not been in China since January 17, 2020 or earlier you do NOT have to complete the form. You do NOT have to self-isolate if you have no symptoms. You can attend class and participate in campus activities. 
  • You do NOT need to wear a mask if you have no symptoms. 

While the situation is still evolving, the currently available data shows that most of the deaths have been in more vulnerable groups, including the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions.  Similar to the flu, these populations are at increased risk for more severe illness.

While this virus seems to have emerged from an animal source, it is now spreading from person-to-person. The CDC recommends that people traveling to China avoid animals both live and dead, but there is no reason to believe that any animals or pets in the United States might be a source of infection with this new coronavirus.

Columbia continues to monitor and provide updates online.  You can check the Columbia News website, this website, and the Columbia Health website for updates.  Major notifications and announcements may also be shared via email.  Be sure to check your Columbia email on a regular basis.