Saying the move was out of an abundance of caution, Rice University on Saturday asked a "small group of students and faculty" to self-quarantine because a university employee might have been exposed to the new coronavirus while traveling overseas.
The university didn't identify the person but said that they are a research staff member who had contact with a possible positive case of the virus. The person's "contact with the Rice campus was limited and occurred on Monday and Tuesday of last week," the university said in a campus-wide alert Sunday. The university didn't say where the employee traveled — other than that it was not to a country on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's restricted travel list.
"Rice public safety officers learned of the case on Saturday afternoon and took immediate action to ensure the safety and well-being of those involved and the broader Rice community," the university said in the alert.
The university said it's not planning to suspend campus operations, events or classes. The staff member has not had direct contact with undergraduate students and has not been in a residential college or classroom since returning to Houston, the university said.
"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," the alert said. "Those self-quarantined include faculty, doctoral students and staff. We are working closely with them to ensure their safety and well-being."
As of Sunday, there have been 74 confirmed cases of the virus in the United States, according to The New York Times. Eleven of those have been in Texas — all of them in San Antonio where federal officials have set up a quarantine at Lackland Air Force Base for people returning to the country from high-risk areas. State health officials say the risk for average Texans remains low.
Still, worries about the virus continue to spread. On Sunday, CERAWeek 2020, an international energy conference in Houston, was canceled "in light of developing circumstances." Delegates from more than 80 countries were expected to attend the event, which was scheduled for March 9-13.
"Our number one concern is the health and safety of delegates and speakers, our partners, our colleagues and vendors," said the event organizer, IHS Markit, in a statement. "We have spent the last several weeks focused on this question, established a medical partnership with Houston Methodist Hospital, have been in continuing dialogue with experts on infectious disease, and established an extensive protocol. But the spread of COVID-19 is moving quickly around the world.
At Rice, officials are requiring anyone at the school who travels overseas to notify the university. Those who travel to places where the risk of contracting the virus is elevated are being asked to stay away from the university for two weeks.
"We understand that the Rice community will be rightfully concerned," the university said. "The safety and wellbeing of our students, faculty and staff are our highest priority."
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