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UT Austin Opens Health Clinic, Weighs Closure Plan As It Prepares For Potential Coronavirus Spread

A student uses hand sanitizer on UT Austin campus
Julia Reihs
Health officials are advising people to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer regularly to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

UT Austin said Monday it's preparing to move all classes online if COVID-19 cases are confirmed in the Austin area. The university is also advising students on how to avoid spreading the disease and how to travel safely over spring break. 

Members of UT's administration talked Tuesday about the strategies they are developing. Here's what they had to say:

What will it take for UT to cancel in-person classes? 

“What’s the trigger? That’s the million-dollar question,” said Terrance Hines, executive director and chief medical officer for University Health Services. “I think there’s different scenarios: A case in Austin, Travis County, which is associated with travel may be a different situation than one that was due to person-to-person local contact, which is different from a student who lives in off-campus housing, which is different from a student who lives in the dorm.”

How close is UT in being ready to transition to online classes?

The university is making sure every professor is getting ready to move classes online. This includes professors and students having access to Zoom, an online video-conferencing program. 

A priority in moving to online classes is ensuring every student has access to a computer and the internet.

“Faculty and students may not have all the equipment or training that is necessary in order to deliver it online,” Larry Singell, senior vice provost of Resource Management, said. “So part of our preparation is discovering who’s missing what, making sure we get the proper equipment, training and personnel to support it.”

One solution for students who may not have access to the internet or computers is to keep libraries open on campus.

“We need to make sure that there is an appropriate social distance between people working at those stations,” Singell said. “But that is part of the planning that we’re trying to engage in that takes some time.”

What protocols are being taken on campus to prevent COVID-19?

“Within [the UT clinic] this week, we opened a dedicated respiratory clinic and a separate waiting area for those students who have respiratory type complaints to help isolate them from individuals who might be well and coming to our clinic for other services,” Hines said.

The university is taking precautionary measures by also directing these students through different parts of the clinic and having them come through different entrances.

“We are making these accommodations to not only protect ourselves [and] our staff and those who may be sick, but also those who are well and in our space,” Hines said.

Hines offers these tips:

  • Don’t wear a mask if you’re healthy
  • Don’t shake hands
  • Don’t share food and drinks
  • Don’t touch your face
  • Wash your hands
  • Keep a distance of 3 to 6 feet between yourself and others
  • Stay home if you’re sick

What do I need to know before traveling during spring break?

As of now, the university is not tracking students’ personal travel, but that could change. UT has restricted travel to certain areas for all students, faculty and staff.

“We have suspended travel for undergraduates to all CDC Levels 3, 2 and 1,” Randy Penson, UT’s director for Global Risk and Safety. 

According to the CDC, Level 3 areas, which include South Korea, China and Italy, are on strict lockdown and travel has been suspended globally. A Level 2 is an area with enhanced prevention precautions, such as Japan. Level 1 is practicing standard precautions, like the U.S.

“We are also suspending undergraduate travel for Spain, France and Germany,” Penson said. "Graduate students, faculty and staff are treated just a little bit differently; they’ll need to get approval to go to those areas.”

Penson doesn’t want to discourage students from travelling abroad for spring break. However, he does advise students to consider some tips to be prepared. 

“To everybody who is travelling internationally, I don’t think there should be panic, but you need to be smart,” he said. “Know the COVID-19 case numbers [of your destination] and their travel restrictions. You've got to plan for questionnaires and quarantines and self-isolations and delays of that nature.”

For those who decide to travel abroad this upcoming week, Penson suggests registering with the State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, so the CDC knows where you are. He also recommends keeping up to date with the CDC by downloading apps to stay informed and prepared while away.

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