Updated 3/5/2020: This article has been updated to reflect new death toll and contamination numbers of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
For the past two months, University of Colorado Boulder student Nick Kohler has lived with his host family in Florence, Italy, as part of an education abroad program. Though he looked forward to backpacking across Europe in the summer, his plans have been cut short due to the continued spread of the deadly COVID-19 coronavirus.
“It came as a complete and utter shock to me,” he said. “The timeline of events was way too fast and made my head spin.”
Italy currently has the highest number of cases of the virus of any European county, with over 3,000 confirmed contaminations and over 100 deaths. It has forced Italian officials to take drastic measures as they scramble to contain the outbreak.
Kohler is just one of nearly 200 CU students who have been forced to return to the United States following travel advisory from the U.S. Department of State and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The majority of students, 167, were studying in Italy. Kohler went through a program with Syracuse University where he is currently enrolled. His credits will transfer back to CU at the end of spring.
Kohler said before he left Florence the streets were eerily silent and his host family was distraught about the news of him leaving. He summed up the experience in one word: devastating.
“(Study abroad) was something I had always dreamed of and it was getting cut short not even halfway through the program,” Kohler said. “I feel a deep sense of incompleteness. I feel like I did not maximize the experience and the growth I could have had from it.”
The COVID-19 coronavirus was first reported in December after China alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) of several unusual phenomena cases. Since then, the death toll and number of reported cases has continued to rise. Almost 100,000 cases have been confirmed globally with over 3,000 deaths as of Thursday, March 5. The virus has spread to every continent except Antarctica. In January, the WHO declared the virus a high-level global health emergency.
According to CU Boulder spokesperson Deborah Mendez-Wilson, the university will typically suspend abroad programs if government officials raise travel advisories to a level three or higher. According to Mendez-Wilson, the university has suspended all programs in China, South Korea and Italy, and offered some students the option to switch programs and study in Australia.
“Among 20 students who were in China several weeks ago, two opted to return to Boulder to complete classes here,” she said. “The other 18 were relocated to programs in Argentina, London and Paris.”
For now, Kohler, who is back home with family in Los Angeles, has no plans to return to Boulder for the spring. He said he has already sublet his apartment, thinking he would be gone until June, and said his plans are now “up in the air.” Syracuse is offering him free room and board to finish his semester in person, or offering online courses to complete the necessary class credits. While Kohler said he is not worried about contracting the virus, he said it has still been on his mind.
“I would be lying if I said I did not lose a little sleep over this,” he said.
There are at least 130 known cases of the virus across 13 U.S. states, with 10 reported deaths in Washington and one in California. It spreads much like the flu and is known to cause respiratory issues with symptoms similar to the common cold such as a fever, cough and shortness of breath.
CU Boulder is advising students to take extra health precautions such as washing hands several times a day with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Other wellness tips include covering your mouth or nose with a tissue when sneezing, avoiding contact with people who are sick and staying at home if you yourself are sick.
Students are encouraged to call CU’s Medical Services 24/7 nurse line at 303-492-5101 for advice and recommendations.
Lauren Irwin is a University of Colorado Boulder sophomore majoring in journalism. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. The CUI accepts guest content from CU students currently enrolled at the university.