University of Alaska officials prepare for coronavirus

University of Alaska President Jim Johnsen appears on an episode of Forum@360 in Juneau on April 3, 2018. (Rashah McChesney/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

University of Alaska officials are preparing for coronavirus. No students, faculty or staff in the system have reported exposure to the virus, and there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, in Alaska. But the statewide system is getting ready for that possibility that the virus arrives on campus.

University President Jim Johnsen says UA officials have formed an incident management team.

“And that includes the chancellors and their advisors in academic affairs, in administration, in facilities, and most importantly, in student affairs,” he said.

Last week, the team met with state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin, who shared the latest information about coronavirus. The team has written up procedures for dealing with widespread disease at the university, Johnsen said.

If a student, staff or faculty member gets sick, they will be required to self-quarantine for 14 days, he said. There’s also plan for students living in the dorms.

“If we end up with students who have contracted the disease on our campuses, we have already begun the planning of setting aside dormitory space,” Johnsen said. “So they would be able to be quarantined on campus. We’d provide health service to them and also food service, and to extent possible via online or other communications, we’d make accommodations for their academic programs. So that planning is in process right now.”

In a letter sent to the University of Alaska Anchorage community on March 5, Chancellor Cathy Sandeen said officials are preparing for the possible spread of the virus in Alaska. She asked students preparing for spring break to be aware of travel advisories. Students traveling to areas with active cases of COVID-19, or those who think they’ve been exposed to coronavirus, are asked to report that information to the university.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks has an academic and business plan that covers emergencies for the main Troth Yeddha’ campus in Fairbanks and rural UAF campuses in Dillingham, Kotzebue, Bethel and Nome. It is a work in progress and changes as new ideas come in, university officials said.

Ideas for dealing with the spread of illness include moving face-to-face classes online as much as possible. Classes could also be moved to other buildings, and the course schedule could be extended. If laboratory buildings need to be closed, those classes may be moved to evenings at local high schools with science labs.

Johnsen said the idea is to run through extreme scenarios now, to reduce worry later.

“That’s one of the great things about having really, really smart, prepared people,” he said. “I’ve had a couple of conversations with the governor about our preparedness, here for this likely disease coming to us.”

UAF is the system’s primary research campus, and it’s the home to the International Arctic Research Center. That center has many Japanese scientists. The Centers for Disease Control has given Japan a Level 2 Travel Health Notice. Johnsen says there has been no disruption yet.

“We’re being very careful, and I know we are in close consultation with the Japanese consulate, and we are very clear about how to deal with this issue,” Johnsen said. “And we are still getting the work done.”

On Friday, UAF Chancellor Dan White wrote to students and staff, and encouraged them to ensure that no one is being singled out because of their ethnicity or nationality.

“At UAF we are taking precautions against COVID-19 but we don’t want to be governed by it,” he said. “Please continue our commitment to respect, diversity, inclusion and caring.”

Alaska Public Media’s Abbey Collins contributed reporting from Anchorage.