Risk remains low, but UNI prepares for coronavirus

It’s a pathogen that’s quickly become a household name.

Most of the world had never heard of coronavirus until just two months ago, when a novel version known as SARS-CoV-2, which causes a respiratory disease known as COVID-19, quickly began to spread first in China and then across the globe.

It has since infected tens of thousands, disrupted global supply chains and led investors to predict the onset of an economic recession. Planners from the White House to major cities to Major League Baseball have since formed task forces to coordinate responses. 

So far, there have been no reported cases in Iowa and the risk level here remains low, public health officials say. Still, University of Northern Iowa officials say that the health and safety of students, faculty and staff is of paramount importance and have formed their own COVID-19 task force.

There was an obvious choice to lead it, UNI officials say. 

“Joseph Rayzor is an experienced professional in risk management and in coordinating efforts that require collaboration between people with varied expertise,” said Michael Hager, UNI’s senior vice president for finance and operations and a task force member. “He is an excellent fit for the role.” 

Rayzor, who became UNI’s risk management director in 2017, trained as an attorney and has spent his entire career helping large institutions mitigate risk. 

“The university has been closely monitoring the outbreak and spread of the disease for some time now,” Rayzor said. “No one can predict exactly what will happen, but by being prepared and communicating frequently with the campus, we can do so much to keep our community safe.”

Rayzor and other UNI officials at all levels have been putting in long days in recent weeks to keep abreast of developments and ensure the campus is prepared. They meet or speak frequently with public health officials at the county and state levels and have taken part in conference calls, webinars and other discussions with top medical and campus policy officials from across the country. 

Campus announcements have been sent in recent weeks letting the UNI community know about temporary travel restrictions to China, South Korea and Italy. Officials are working closely with students studying in South Korea and Italy to arrange for their return home as well as provide interim study arrangements. 

“The safety of our students has always been a top priority,” said Allyson Rafanello, UNI’s dean of students and another task force member. “We’ve been working tirelessly to address concerns from them and their families.” 

The task force is currently at work ensuring the campus’ online networks are robust enough to support a large number of staff or students working or studying from home. Other discussions have centered on what needs to happen if a campus community member is diagnosed with COVID-19. 

“The risk remains low, but we want to be prepared,” Rayzor said. 

This is hardly the first time a new virus has spread - H1N1, known as the swine flu, SARS and Zika - were household names for a time in recent years but are rarely mentioned today. Some remnants of those past outbreaks remain on campus, including signs advising proper hand-washing techniques.

“UNI has always been proactive in combating the spread of disease and educating our campus on simple precautions to stay safe,”  said Shelley O’Connell, executive director of student health and another task force member. “Staying home from work or class when you’re sick or just coughing into your elbow can keep sickness from spreading.” 

And with the discussions on COVID-19, UNI officials don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The framework for the university’s response to a variety of scenarios is built on planning for past infectious disease outbreaks. 

But a few things are new. On Tuesday, officials released a new website - prepare.uni.edu - to keep the campus informed as the global situation changes. And planning continues. 

“We’re going to be responsive to this as it unfolds,” Rayzor said.