M. Terry/SFVS

Vaughn International Studies Academy.

For years, the Pacoima charter school complex Vaughn Next Century Learning Center has hosted groups of Chinese students who spend a week living with local families and attending classes at the different campuses as part of intercultural exchange programs.

It wasn’t unusual to see Chinese students in the middle of a semester walking the yards or hallways of the schools, often paired with local students, as a way to strengthen cross-cultural relationships.

Students from Vaughn International Studies Academy (VISA) —  where Mandarin is one of the languages offered as an elective in the high school curriculum — have also traveled to China to visit Asia’s largest country and marvel at its wonders.

But on Monday, Feb. 3, the school’s CEO Fidel Ramirez sent a letter to parents to inform them that “we are very much aware of the Coronavirus and its impact in the area of Wuhan, China.”

“For your information, Vaughn has cancelled all student group visits from China. We did this as a safety precaution for our students and school staff,” the letter stated.

Attached to the letter was information on the disease, including how the infection spreads, its symptoms, and how to prevent it.

It is considered a precautionary measure.

Dr. Yvonne Chan, the founder of the first conversion charter school in the nation back when she was principal of Vaughn Next Century Learning Center, established the cultural exchange programs here.

Chan was born in China and left for Hong Kong in 1956 after the establishment of the Communist government. Chan came to the United States in 1962 at age 17 and began her academic career in 1968 as an elementary school teacher. She never forgot her roots, though, and that inspired her to establish a relationship between the Pacoima campuses and schools back in her home country.

But the appearance and rapid spread of the Coronavirus, which (at press time) had killed over 430 people and infected over 20,000 around the world — the large majority of victims in China — which doctors are still determining the best way to contain and treat, is now affecting Vaughn’s cultural exchange programs.

Threat Still Low in the US

While the US Department of Health and Human Services has declared the Coronavirus a nationwide public health emergency, “At this time, the risk in the US of contracting Coronavirus remains low,” states William Jaquis, MD, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP).

“It is important to understand your risk factors and practice good hygiene. Americans are far more likely to get the flu than the Coronavirus, but you protect yourself against both viruses the same way: get the flu shot, wash your hands regularly and cough or sneeze into your arm or a tissue,” Jaquis said.

Emergency physicians train extensively to help prevent, treat, and mitigate the spread of highly contagious viruses, such as Coronavirus, Ebola, and Zika. Emergency departments nationwide have protocols in place to protect the public and work alongside hospitals and health professionals to stop the spread of the virus and report relevant cases to local, state and national health departments.

For its part, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health states it has only confirmed one case of Coronavirus in a traveler from Wuhan, and there are only 11 cases diagnosed across the United States, six of them in California.

The latest cases were a husband and wife in San Benito County, near Salinas, in the middle of the state. According to a press release from that county, the 57-year-old husband had recently traveled from Wuhan, but the wife did not, representing a person-to-person transmission.

“Both patients have not left their home since returning from China,” the press release states.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urges anyone that has been in the Wuhan, China region within the last two weeks, and developed a fever, cough or had trouble breathing, to seek medical care.

Darwin (who asked not to reveal his last name) just came back from a two-week vacation to Taiwan, an island about two hours away on a plane from mainland China. He says that the fear of the virus in that part of the world is absolutely high and everyone wears a mask hoping to protect himself/herself from infection.

“Out there, you’re the weird one if you’re not wearing a mask,” he said.

On his plane back to the US, Darwin said he counted only three passengers without masks. Upon their arrival at LAX, the three were checked for signs of fever and respiratory illness before being allowed to continue.

In a teleconference on Feb. 3, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of CDC National Center for Respiratory Diseases, said that despite the deaths reported, the contagion has been pretty mild for those in the US who have confirmed to have the disease.

“At least a few have at some point in the course of their illness been more severely ill. And there have been some ups and downs in the course of these patients that are sicker. I would note that there are no deaths in the United States. Some of our patients have had oxygen requirements during the course of their illness,” Messonnier said.

She added, “There is the first death outside China now reported.  And the data coming out of China continues to say that the people who are at higher risk for severe disease and death are those who are older and with underlying health conditions.”

The Disease

According to the federal government website MedlinePlus, the Coronavirus usually causes mild to moderate upper-respiratory infections like the common cold. But it can also cause more severe illnesses such as bronchitis and pneumonia.

The new strain (2019-nCoV) is the one generating the current global health crisis.

The new Coronavirus spreads from person-to-person among close contacts via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, similar to how influenza and other respiratory pathogens spread.

 The CDC reports that symptoms are very similar to the flu, including fever, cough, congestion, and/or shortness of breath.

Currently, there is no vaccine against the new strain of Coronavirus.