Massachusetts officials are urging high schools, colleges, and universities to forgo their student study abroad programs — one of several precautionary measures detailed Wednesday aimed at quelling the spread of the novel coronavirus.
After meeting with transportation, public health, and education leaders, Gov. Charlie Baker said the Bay State remains at low risk for COVID-19, but agencies are continuing to plan to “ensure that the commonwealth remains prepared” as cases around the globe swell.
So far, Massachusetts has recorded one confirmed case in a Boston man last month. On Monday, officials announced a presumptive positive case of the coronavirus in a Norfolk County woman.
As of Tuesday, 719 people across the state were subjected to quarantine, 470 had completed their quarantine, and 249 people were undergoing monitoring or were under a quarantine order, according to the Department of Public Health.
“Our top priority continues to be the health and safety of our residents,” Baker said.
State officials ask schools to cancel trips ‘due to the evolving situation’
Acknowledging international student trips “require an immense amount of planning and investment from students and their families,” Baker said officials are now asking educators to refrain from following through on travel programs.
“Due to the evolving situation, we are urging colleges, universities, and high schools to cancel upcoming organized international trips at this time,” Baker said during a press conference at the State House. “Taking this precaution will help protect both the students and the commonwealth.”
The encouragement comes as several local institutions have either cancelled programs or recalled students who were already overseas, with coronavirus outbreaks having been reported in countries such as China, Italy, South Korea, and Iran — which have all received a Level 3 travel warning from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and Japan, currently at a Level 2 alert.
Baker said state officials were told Tuesday night to expect forthcoming updates Wednesday from the CDC about instructions travelers returning to the United States from those countries must follow, such as taking 14-day isolations and limiting contact with others.
UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy told reporters colleges and universities are often already well versed in how to respond to broad health threats among students, staff, and faculty.
“Given the large collection of students … in close contact, we always prepare for that,” he said.
No cases have been reported among students or personnel at UMass Amherst, Subbaswamy said. The university had 750 students studying abroad before it cancelled programs and recalled students from countries with the Level 3 travel alert.
The school also mandated that those returning be placed in a two-week self-quarantine once they arrive back on campus, he said. UMass Amherst plans to keep its dormitories and student facilities open over its spring break to provide students who do not want to travel a place to stay.
“We are encouraging them to stay and are continuing education so they can actually use that time to accelerate the time to their degree,” Subbaswamy said.
Pointing to the university’s 3,400 international students, Subbaswamy said the school is prepared to keep its halls open over the summer, if needed, and has identified areas of campus that can be used for isolation purposes.
The MBTA is ‘ramping up’ measures to disinfect stations, vehicles
Steve Poftak, general manager of the MBTA, said the agency is “ramping up” disinfecting protocols at its stations and vehicles this week.
Station surfaces such as fare equipment and handrails will be cleaned every four hours starting Wednesday “subject to getting enough disinfectant in place,” he said.
“We are going to move to a protocol where we will be disinfecting every vehicle, every day,” Poftak said. “Right now we have enough equipment on hand to be doing that on the Commuter Rail. We expect by the end of this week to be able to do it across the system.”
Poftak, responding to a question from a reporter, said he is unaware of the current disinfecting schedule, but said the MBTA has a cleaning schedule it follows “regularly.”
There have been “some supply chain issues” with receiving disinfectant but officials do not expect them to last long and should be settled by the end of the week, Poftak said.
“We expect to be able to overcome that shortly,” he said.
The agency also anticipates installing hand sanitizer equipment at its facilities and has been using signage to encourage people to take “common sense, good personal hygiene steps,” he said.
Massport CEO Lisa Wieland said the agency stepped up its cleaning practices inside Logan Airport terminals last month; has disseminated information about the coronavirus to passengers; and has added hand sanitizer stations.
“I continue to take information and guidance from our local, state, and federal partners and I think that we are planning and preparing as we have been and I am confident in those efforts,” Wieland said.
Watch the full press conference: