Outbreak rumors spread fear

Rumors of a case of coronavirus surfaced at The Lorenzo Monday night after the general manager sent an email out to residents erroneously confirming that a resident had contracted the illness. (Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan)

Following rumors that a case of coronavirus broke out near USC Monday night, the University affirmed that news of an outbreak would not come from an apartment management team but from L.A. County public health authorities first.

On Monday night, students feared that the virus may have spread to the USC community after off-campus housing complex The Lorenzo emailed tenants erroneously stating that a resident had contracted the virus. 

Chief Health Officer Sarah Van Orman said that if an individual from the USC community were to contract the virus, Student Health would first inform the Los Angeles Department of Public Health, which would inform the public of any development involving the coronavirus.

“The Department of Public Health is the only agency that has the authority to release the results,” Van Orman told the Daily Trojan. “In the event that there were students affected, they would let us know. They would put out a public press release like we saw over the weekend for the non-USC … individual.”

Health officials confirmed two cases of coronavirus in Los Angeles and Orange counties Sunday. There has been no evidence of person-to-person transmission in these two cases. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control is investigating more than 100 potential cases of coronavirus, with five cases confirmed, 70 under investigation and 32 with negative results. However, no one affiliated with USC is currently under investigation, Van Orman said.

Lorenzo resident Mayra Huerta, a senior majoring in human biology, said she got back to her apartment near 8:30 p.m. and saw multiple ambulance vehicles outside. When her friends sent her a screenshot of the email, she said she felt fearful. 

“All my roommates, we all came out, we all freaked out,” Huerta said. “We all took out the Clorox wipes and disinfected everything, and we were kind of panicking, and it was just like a state of panic.”

Posts about the false outbreak filled social media, including the USC memes page on Facebook. One on the memes page read “University of Spreading Coronavirus” and another included a photo depicting fake face masks engraved with USC’s initials.

Several racist and xenophobic memes have circulated on the University’s Facebook meme page and a Latinx group chat, targeting Asian students because of the virus’ origin in China. While the virus originated there, Van Orman said targeting Chinese international students with hateful comments about the illness is problematic and only exacerbates panic surrounding the disease.

“We’re very concerned that we’re hearing that students from China or students from the Wuhan province are being targeted,” Van Orman said. “It’s very easy to try to kind of point fingers at a group of people or individuals and think that if we just keep them away that somehow we’ll all be safe, and that’s really dangerous and discriminatory.”

These memos were also addressed at Tuesday’s Undergraduate Student Government Meeting during which Sen. Angela Chuang asked attendees to be mindful of what they post online.

“Our international student population and our Asian American student population are being affected by this because [we’re worried about our] relatives back in Asia,” she told meeting attendees.

On the night of the false alarm, some concerned students created a petition requesting that USC cancel classes. It garnered nearly 10,000 signatures.

In addition to Huerta, other students reported seeing paramedics and members of the Los Angeles Fire Department outside the apartment complex that evening. According to DPS Daily Crime and Fire Logs, a student was transported to a local hospital near 9 p.m. after reporting a sore throat and fatigue.

The Lorenzo later retracted their notice, apologizing for the release of false information. The Lorenzo declined to further comment on the incident and redirected communication to USC Media Relations. 

Huerta said she was initially confused when USC reported that there was a false alarm and that she wanted an additional confirmation from The Lorenzo. Once she received the second email from the apartment complex, she and her roommates felt relieved, she said.

“I wish … they would’ve just confirmed reports before sending an email,” Huerta said. “It would have been helpful because I feel like a lot of people freaked out. And I know a lot of [locals] got in their cars and went home.”

Van Orman said the ill student was screened for coronavirus symptoms through a checklist developed by the L.A. County Department of Public Health per protocol, saying what occurred on the scene may have led to miscommunication. 

Van Orman explained that while there are at least five confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S., the situation is not as severe as it is in Wuhan, China, and other parts of the nation, where the virus first spread.

USC is currently working with LADPH to monitor developments in Los Angeles. L.A. has not placed a quarantine for those returning from Wuhan or any affected areas. However, Van Orman encourages individuals experiencing symptoms to seek immediate medical care.

“There’s social distancing,” she said. “I think there’s confusion because of the measures being taken in China, where they have a localized population with thousands of cases, versus the measures that we might, for example, take in the United States, where we have had a handful of cases that have been contained. They’re very different situations.”

USC Student Health plans to increase communication to continue to ease student concerns on the outbreak and relay the preventative measures being taken. 

Natalie Oganesyan and Kate Sequeira contributed to the report.