Lehigh University was one of a number of area colleges to announce Wednesday that it is closing dormitories and replacing classroom study with remote learning in response to the coronavirus, which the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared a pandemic.
There have not been any reports of coronavirus at the school or locally, but to help prevent any potential spread of the illness, these and other steps are being taken based on recommendations from state and federal health officials, the university said.
“Our decision is consistent with the ‘social distancing’ recommendations from health experts, and we continue to follow guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of Health (PA DOH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the City of Bethlehem Health Bureau,” said Lehigh president John D. Simon in a letter to the community about the decision. “We are taking this extraordinary step in an effort to protect the health and safety of our community and to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”
“To be clear, the university will remain open, and we are confident in our ability to continue to deliver on our educational and research mission during this time,” Simon said. “We will continue to assess developments during this time and provide further guidance.”
Lehigh students will receive instructions from their professors about how to continue their studies online and will have access to their on-campus residences until 5 p.m. Monday, March 16, to retrieve any materials needed to continue their studies remotely.
No overnight stays are being permitted unless a student has “received exceptional permission to remain living on campus,” the letter from Simon indicated.
Students who are unable to return home due to “extreme circumstances” must also request a special exception and students who live off-campus are being “encouraged” by the university to return home.
In addition to Lehigh, Muhlenberg and Lafayette colleges, Kutztown and East Stroudsburg universities and other institutions of higher learning have announced the closure of their dorms and classrooms.
As of Wednesday, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in either Northampton or Lehigh counties, however a number of surrounding counties have confirmed cases.
Two cases were confirmed in Bucks County Wednesday, along with at least one additional case in Montgomery County, where a total of nine cases have been confirmed. Statewide there were 15 confirmed cases of coronavirus as of late Wednesday afternoon.
In a 4 p.m. news conference, Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said 57 tests for coronavirus are pending in the state.
Pennsylvania has not yet confirmed a case of the virus determined to be via “community spread,” which Levine said means the virus was contagious “within the community,” however New Jersey confirmed its first community-spread case Wednesday.
“We anticipate that community spread will occur,” Levine said, adding that it has already happened in a number of other places throughout the U.S. and internationally.
The coronavirus outbreak began in China in late December. Since then the disease has spread across the globe, ravaging some countries like Italy, where more than 12,000 cases and over 800 deaths had been confirmed as of late Wednesday.
In contrast, the U.S. has had more than 1,100 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 32 confirmed deaths to date, although it is being widely reported that the number of people being tested for coronavirus in the U.S. is far below the per capita testing ratios of most other countries in which its spread has been well-documented.
In her Wednesday afternoon news conference, Levine said that in addition to testing, “mitigation” measures such as banning large public gatherings which could help prevent community spread of the coronavirus in Pennsylvania are being considered by the state.
She reminded residents to “practice everyday prevention measures” such as handwashing with antibacterial soap and hot water for the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice in order to prevent any potential spread of the illness.
Hand sanitizer may also be useful in killing the coronavirus, however it has been in short supply along with a number of other items such as toilet paper and aerosol disinfectant since panic buying has emptied local supermarket shelves of them.
In spite of the fact that there have been no confirmed local cases, some businesses are reacting to the coronavirus’ spread by reminding their customers to help everyone in the community stay healthy by being cautious about physical contact with others right now.
In an email Wednesday afternoon, Steel Club in Hellertown asked members and guests to refrain from shaking hands for the time being in lieu of using “other non-contact methods of greeting.”
The club said it is installing additional hand sanitizer dispensers around the property and placing “special cleaning attention has been placed on sanitizing door knobs, faucets, handrails and all other similar surfaces.”
“At Steel Club, we are always meticulous in our regular cleaning and sanitizing practices,” the letter said.
Late Wednesday afternoon an email from Northampton Community College’s public relations department announced that the school’s annual Spring Craft Fair scheduled to be held this Saturday was being postponed.
A reason for the postponement wasn’t provided. Saucon Source has reached out to NCC staff to ask if it is related to the coronavirus.