AUSTIN, TX — The number of University of Texas at Austin students coming down with coronavirus after a spring break trip to coastal Mexico rose to 44 — 16 more than originally reported by health officials — according to a school spokesman.
Austin Public Health officials on Tuesday confirmed 28 students had tested positive for the virus causing that causes the respiratory illness after returning to Austin from a vacation in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. By Wednesday, UT-Austin spokesman J.B. Bird confirmed the number of diagnosed cases among the group of some 70 UT-Austin students who had chartered a plane to Mexico had grown to 44. Bird confirmed the level after an inquiry from Patch, adding all those affected are UT-Austin students.
The students’ trip defied health officials’ advice centered on limiting outings solely to necessary trips — grocery store shopping, medicine retrieval at pharmacies or visits to the bank for needed financial transactions for example — in adhering to social distancing guidelines. Lacking a vaccine for the disease, health officials have pointed to physical distancing — maintaining a buffer of at least six feet between people — as the most effective way of mitigating potential illness spread.
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The illness is transmitted via respiratory droplets emitted by infected people through coughing or sneezing, health officials have said.
In a related front, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott reported a patient in his or her 20s under critical condition after being infected with COVID-19. It’s unclear if the young patient was among students returning from Mexico. Escott’s latest health update revealing the news underscored the importance of social distancing as a way to mitigate illness spread, his message referencing youthful residents who may think themselves impervious to disease.
“The health of the public is in the hands of the community,” Escott said in a prepared statement. “It is important to understand that young people are not immune from serious illness. We implore the community to stay at home even if you are not feeling ill, and before leaving your house ask yourself ‘Is this trip necessary?’ It is the entire community’s responsibility to stop the spread, including our young adults and teens.”
The day after the mass illness was reported by media outlets, UT-Austin officials produced an educational video posted on Twitter meant to educate students about the illness scourge. “We’re concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic and a spike in the number of positives in our student body,” the post accompanying the video reads. “Longhorns, take this matter seriously, do your part, social distance and follow all public health guidelines.”
The video features UT-Austin spokesman J.B. Bird asking questions related to health safeguards of Dr. Soncia Reagins-Lilly, the university’s vice president for student affairs and dean of students, and Dr. Terrance Hines, executive director and chief medical officer of University Health Services.
“Please, please, take this matter seriously and do your part,” Dr. Reagins-Lilly advised students. “Please practice social distancing, and adhere to all of the public health guideline that have been outlined for you.”
For his part, Hines expounded on the importance of students practicing social distancing: “Not only can it help to prevent young people from becoming infected, it can also help prevent them — and sometimes without symptoms — from passing the virus on to parents and grandparents or others in our community who may be at risk, like those with chronic health problems.”
In dispensing advice, Bird and his colleagues walked the walk, so to speak, of social distancing — each filming their presentations remotely from separate locations. Ending their message, the three flash the familiar Longhorns hand gesture in urging students to live up to the university’s highest ideals even amid such times of uncertainty.
While many young people contracting COVID-19 experience mild symptoms, those in more vulnerable populatin segments — the elderly or those with underlying medical conditions, for example — can develop more serious health effects, medical officials have noted. Even young people feeling healthy can be carriers of illness who could unwittingly pass on the disease to others through close contact, as health officials have said.
Instructions aimed at curbing the curve of illness aren’t mere suggestions, but requirements in keeping a social contract while adhering to the highest ideals asked of the Longhorns community, Dr. Reagins-Lilly added.
“Being a part of the Longhorns community, we are governed by…the institutional rules of the University of Texas at Austin,” she said. “And in that document, it explicitly states that we must follow city, state and federal guidelines. It’s important because there are consequences when we don’t We can make a difference. We can make a change.”
The oubreak of COVID-19 at UT-Austin isn’t the first time the campus has been touched by the pandemic. In mid-March, UT-Austin President Gregory L. Fenves confirmed has wife had contracted the illness even while he later tested negative for the virus. Days later, reports emerged of two students being stricken with the respiratory ailment.
On the University Health Services website, officials point students to help being offered via telemedicine, including evaluation for COVID-19. “For the safety of our patients and staff, we will be scheduling in-person appointments for acute illness or injury only after an initial telemedicine consultation in which the provider determines an in-person visit is necessary in order to provide treatment or care,” officials wrote.
The office is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Students availing themselves of services are directed to call 512-471-4955 to schedule or the UHS Nurse Advice Line at 512-475-6877 for guidance. Those seeking care from another provider and need records released, are advised to click here for instructions.