President Rita Cheng’s annual spring campus forum was reclassified as a COVID-19 discussion, which featured a committee of seven experts from around the Flagstaff area.

Before the Tuesday afternoon forum, however, students met at the University Union with speakers and signs to protest Cheng's presidency. From there, they walked to the High Country Conference Center — the location of the forum — together.

During the meeting, panelists addressed preparedness efforts and current details regarding the disease and its transmission. Additionally, the mixture of live attendants and an online audience created open communication about a sensitive topic, a conversation Cheng said is invaluable.

“It’s critical that we prioritize open and transparent communication, and that we work hard to dispel myths and answer questions,” Cheng said at the start of the forum. “We’re making the commitment to share what we know now and continue to distribute information as things change.”

Joel Terriquez, medical director of Infectious Diseases and Prevention for Northern Arizona Healthcare, said coronavirus infections are nothing new. COVID-19, a specific strain of the virus, is simply more transmissible and contagious than past iterations. The disease’s communicability allows it to spread from an infected subject to another two or three people, Terriquez explained, which demonstrates its potential for widespread contagion.

“Our risk of infection will be highest when we are in close contact with someone who is ill, coughing and not taking appropriate precautions,” Terriquez said.

Although no vaccine currently exists for COVID-19, there are remedies for similar illnesses. For example, Terriquez said flu shots are an effective method for limiting pervasive sicknesses and keeping hospitals less occupied. In this regard, receiving influenza vaccinations and practicing sanitation techniques will allow hospitals to better prepare for the novel coronavirus.

“Northern Arizona Healthcare has the ability to care for patients with coronavirus, but resources need to be optimized in order to avoid overflowing our emergency resources,” Terriquez said.

Matthew Maurer, an epidemiologist for Coconino County Health and Human Services (CCHHS), addressed the county’s efforts in identifying and monitoring the potential dissemination of the virus.

CCHHS’s main objective, Maurer said, is to protect the public and prevent the spread of COVID-19. To achieve this goal, anyone with the illness must be diagnosed, isolated and treated before potentially infecting other people. Despite this active and cautious surveillance, however, the disease is unlikely to impact Coconino County.

“The risk of coronavirus in Coconino County is super low, but the risk of other respiratory illnesses — like the flu — is high,” Maurer said.

Another aspect of COVID-19 preparedness is monitoring global transmission and limiting unnecessary travel. NAU has a significant international community based around the world, which merits consideration as the disease continues to spread. Daniel Palm, associate vice president of the Center for International Education (CIE), said students studying abroad have been protected from this ongoing outbreak.

“The staff and I were able to leverage both official and unofficial sources to better understand the situation on the ground and to make informed decisions about the safety and security of NAU students abroad,” Palm said.

Palm said COVID-19’s initial infection in Wuhan, China, forced the CIE to evaluate the safety of NAU students in the country. After the U.S. Department of State authorized a level three travel warning for China on Jan. 27, Palm said all NAU students in the area were required to leave.

These students were given the choice to enroll in online coursework, study abroad in a different country or go home. Numerous students have already relocated to Australia, Mexico and Thailand, Palm added, continuing their international education.

More recently, the same protocols have been implemented for students in South Korea and Italy, which are also highly infected countries. Palm said the CIE continues to monitor and protect NAU students throughout the world, and that their safety is the department’s top priority.

Cheng’s COVID-19 meeting also featured a period for audience questions and panel answers. One member of the audience, Dawn Rivas, associate director and associate clinical director at the School of Nursing, asked if masks are useful in preventing transmission of the disease.

Terriquez, who responded, said masks are not necessary until there is a confirmed case in Coconino County, and needlessly wearing them can generate societal panic. Although COVID-19 can spread between people within three feet of each other, Terriquez added, the use of masks is not currently important.

Another question from the crowd was about students’ accessibility to medical treatment, specifically during the weekends. An audience member asked what medical resource students should utilize given the closure of Campus Health Services (CHS) on both Saturday and Sunday.

Director of CHS Julie Ryan said urgent care centers or Flagstaff Medical Center’s emergency room are alternative treatment methods open during the weekend. Additionally, she explained that Ubers and public transportation are options for students without cars, although there are also clinics with 24/7 medical hotlines.

As the Flagstaff community prepares for the possibility of a COVID-19 infection, Cheng said NAU and its partners will actively collaborate and address the situation.

“We have strong and well-established relationships with experts in public health, emergency preparedness and contagious disease who manage situations like this,” Cheng said.