Colby quarantines students traveling from mainland China

The number of cases of coronavirus, now known as COVID-19, have been continuously increasing in China since January. 

Originating in the city of Wuhan, cases have been found throughout both China and the United States. In late January, the World Health Organization declared the virus a world health emergency, prompting the US to suspend travel and recommend a period of isolation for those traveling from China. 

While these events began to unfold, people around the world were watching, including Colby’s own Head Nurse and Interim Director of the Garrison-Foster Health Center Judy Whyte. In a recent interview with the Echo she described the initial steps taken as a response to COVID-19. 

“We had reached out, probably in the middle of January, to the Centers for Disease Control to get some information from them,” Whyte said. “We have strong protocols for communicable diseases in general at the health center, so we’ve got a lot of the things in place. What we were looking for guidance on was what would we need in order to enact those protocols.”

Whyte maintained contact with Dean of the College, Karlene Burrell-McRae `94, to enact protocol. When the Department of Health and Human Services announced a recommended 14-day isolation period for travelers, the College met to discuss a course of action. Ultimately, the College decided to quarantine students coming back from mainland China.

“For many of us in the conversation, the decision was for a few reasons,” Burrell-McRae said in an interview with the Echo. “One: because we still weren’t clear about how this was going to play out. Two: we had students coming back from campus due to JanPlan, so we had the opportunity to make some decisions different from other schools. Three: we were thinking about the students themselves that we were going to self-isolate. They’re coming back from places where they’re seeing families and they’re worried about whether they’re going to get this virus or not. And we wanted to make sure that we could say to the entire community, ‘those members of our community are safe’” Burrell-McRae said.

“So it was to support both them and the larger community, and make sure that after the 14-day period no one needed to worry about or question their presence on campus.”

The next step for the College was to determine how they would care for the students. Whyte expressed her commitment to making the transition as smooth as possible.

“It just really felt like we were in the worst possible scenario of welcoming them back to campus. It was an important part for us to give those students as much normalcy and tender loving care as possible.”

Burrell-McRae discussed her astonishment at the College’s ability to pull together support for the students so quickly. 

“We had to make sure they had meals and access to their advisors. I think there were about 101 faculty members that worked with students to make sure they could participate in every class” Burrell-McRae said. 

“They used zoom and even private tutorials to ensure they were on track. We made sure students had access to mental health services, [Information Technology Services], Security, you name it. This was an amazing reflection of how we came together as a community to support the students.”

One such student, Irene Zhang `22, spoke to the Echo in a recent interview about her experience. 

“I came back to the States on the first of February,” Zhang said. “I landed in Boston and then I got the message from my friend that they had already been sent to the hotel as soon as they got back to Waterville. I was surprised to be honest, and I was a little confused. And then I read about the US recommendation of self-isolation, and I understood why it was appropriate for the College to do this for the safety of other members of the community.”

Zhang described her overall experience with staff as positive during the quarantine, saying “I was worried for a little bit in the beginning, but they gave us a document to answer any questions and they said they would send an email out to our professors. At least with my professors, either they would have zoom session with me in class or makeup sessions after class so that I was able to keep up. Sometimes the internet connection was not very convenient, but we were able to make it work.”

She also mentioned local interest in Colby’s decision to quarantine. According to Zhang, Colby security guards were placed in the halls to protect students from local reporters who attempted to enter the building where students were being housed. Colby also released a statement to local news outlets emphasizing that all the students under quarantine showed no symptoms and that they were being given abundant support. 

While students off-campus in quarantine were trying to adjust to the semester, some students on campus worried about how the quarantine could lead to potential xenophobia in the Colby community. The executive board for Project Pengyou, a Colby club interested in promoting positive relations between US and Chinese cultures, released a public statement addressing these concerns.

“Anxiety and concern about the outbreak are understandable – but they never justify racism, xenophobia or discrimination in any context,” the statement read. 

“We should be against the virus, never the people – [a] virus does not have citizenship. It is important to keep in mind that in addition to pre-existing commitments, your fellow students are facing the emotional burden from the difficulties that the COVID-19 has inflicted upon their loved ones back home. Issues related to novel coronavirus shouldn’t be taken lightly and should never be joked about. In times like this, we would encourage our community to stand in solidarity with the affected people, and recognize that the scope of this global health emergency extends beyond the Colby Community. We would like to urge everyone to respond to this outbreak with reason, mutual respect, and empathy.”

The severity of COVID-19 has certainly been a concern for the campus, particularly for students with family in mainland China. 

“I definitely feel insecure not being home because my friends and family are home,” Zhang said. “I’m definitely worried. My home is not very close to Wuhan but I’m still worried if I could go back for summer break. Hopefully it’ll get better soon, but anything can change and there’s nothing I can do really while I’m here.”

Both Project Pengyou and the Colby Administration have expressed the importance of empathy and respect in these cases. 

Burrell-McRae recounted how necessary it was that she send out a message to the community about the safety and health of students. “I wanted to reiterate in each email that no one was sick,” she said. 

“When I visited with the students, they were so concerned that they didn’t want to cause any harm to their fellow students, faculty and staff. They are an extraordinary group of people and we ought to be proud that they’re members of our community. So how do we make sure we are returning that compassion and care? I think it’s important. I will remind folks again of the importance of embracing each member of the community and not to make assumptions. Because we would never do anything that is going to cause harm to the community. So when everyone is back, we’re asking people to trust us because we followed the appropriate protocol.”

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