Health & Science

Rice Says Group Under ‘Self-Quarantine’ Amid COVID-19 Concerns

The school said a research staffer may have come into contact with the virus.

Chriis Paul/Houston Public Media
Rice University’s administration building

A group of people at Rice University have been advised to self-quarantine after a staff member may have been inadvertently exposed to the novel coronavirus overseas, the university said Sunday.

In what the school called an "abundance of caution," 17 people were asked to self-quarantine after coming into direct contact with tbe research staffer, who while traveling abroad may have been exposed to the virus also known as COVID-19.

"Only one individual is being investigated by public health authorities, but out of an abundance of caution, Rice has identified those persons on our campus with whom there was direct contact, and we recommended that the 17 individuals self-isolate and follow heightened precautions in locations off the main campus," read an email from the school to students and staff Sunday.

The 17 people include faculty, doctoral students and staff, the message added.

The university said the research staffer was traveling in a country not on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's restricted travel list.

Public safety officers learned about the exposure Saturday afternoon, and the research staffer had limited contact with the school, according to the email.

"We know you are worried about the possibility that students have been exposed, and we can confirm that based on our investigation the staff member has not had direct contact with our undergraduate population," the email said. "Likewise, the staff member has not been in any residential college or any classrooms since returning to Houston on Feb. 20."

The university said it was working with Harris County Public Health. Those health officials said there was low risk to the campus, the university said.

For students it was business as usual Monday, though some were concerned to hear the news.

"Obviously I was a little shocked, just naturally,” said Cooper Valentine, a Rice freshman. “Then again, I also expected that we would have something on campus, just considering how diverse and how internationally minded Rice is. So it was something that I had in the back of my mind.”

Others, like graduate student Ian Campbell, were encouraged by the school’s response.

“They've been very communicative and I feel pretty good about where campus is at and they'll keep us updated,” Campbell said. “I was a little surprised, but I do think they are on the situation, and I'm glad they're taking the steps to keep people safe.”

As of Saturday, there were 11 cases of the coronavirus in Texas, all in San Antonio, according to the Texas Tribune. San Antonio's Lachlan Air Force Base has been used as a quarantine for evacuees from the Diamond Princess cruise ship who have been exposed to the disease.

There are more than 80 confirmed cases overall in the U.S., according to The New York Times.

Local officials stressed Sunday that there has not been one positive case in Harris County.

But concerns about the virus have caused the cancelation of one of the world's largest energy conferences, held every year in Houston. CERAWeek 2020 organizers on Sunday said the weeklong event scheduled for March 9-13 would not go on due to safety concerns.

"The decision by IHS Markit to cancel CERAWeek 2020 was made after careful consideration following an advisory issued by the World Health Organization about the spread of the COVID-19 virus, a growing concern about large conferences with people coming from different parts of the world and the restriction of travel by a growing number of companies," read a joint statement from organizers IHS Markit and Mayor Sylvester Turner. "Nothing specific to Houston led to this decision."

Rice said it was reviewing all university-sponsored student trips scheduled for spring break and reminded the campus community to self-isolate if traveling to any locations identified by the CDC as "level 2 or level 3" warning countries, and to stay away from campus for two weeks after returning.

As an extra precaution, the university is also now requiring any students, teachers and staff traveling outside the U.S. to register with the school.

Meanwhile, even graffiti artists had a message for Houstonians. The famous “BE SOMEONE” mural on an overpass along I-45 south was altered over the weekend.

“WASH UR HANDS,” the mural now said.

Paul DeBenedetto / Houston Public Media
The famous “BE SOMEONE” mural was vandalized over the weekend, with a message to motorists: “WASH UR HANDS.”