A traveler trying to get out of Italy, where the coronavirus outbreak seemed to balloon overnight, described a scene where tourists and students scrambled to find a flight out of Florence.
"It’s a madhouse,” said Joan Walsh of Massachusetts, who cut her Florentine tour short with her husband, David Sibley, after the virus reportedly had infected more than 650 people and killed 17 as of late afternoon Thursday.
A handful of schools in the U.S. started bringing home students after closing their Italy programs this week. Many universities with programs around the world told VOA they were waiting to see how the situation progressed. But several schools with study-abroad programs in China and South Korea, where the coronavirus has infected nearly 79,000 and nearly 1,800, respectively, have already shuttered those programs.
Walsh said she was joined in line by students from a few universities, including New York University and Syracuse University in New York. Some students found out Monday that they were ordered home; others were voluntarily leaving Italy.
"We have made the decision to close the academic program at our Florence campus and assist our students with returning to the United States,” announced Syracuse University on Wednesday. “Concerns for the safety, well-being and free movement of the 342 students in our study-abroad program in Florence, Italy, have guided this difficult decision, which was also informed by global health experts.”
“Kinda sucks,” Walsh said the students responded. Most said they wouldn’t return until after spring break, later, or not at all this semester.
After the English-speaking U.K., Italy is the second-favorite study-abroad location for U.S. students. In the 2017-18 academic year, nearly 37,000 American students studied there.
"The university is working through the logistics of allowing these students to return to Fairfield University’s campus no earlier than March 15, after our spring break, and resume classes on campus,” Fairfield University in Connecticut said of its 142 students returning to campus.
“Students will have the option of both online and hybrid courses to ensure they remain on track toward their graduation dates,” Fairfield said.
'I was very worried'
Jeremy Kleiman, in his final semester as a graduate student in chemical engineering at the Polytechnic University of Milan, stayed behind, saying travel was problematic.
“Trying to get flights out of Italy isn’t too easy right now,” Kleiman said.
Students faced grocery-store chaos.
"Monday, the lines were huge, and all of the shelves were empty,” he told VOA. “I was very worried.”
“The virus has spread to Iran, Italy, Japan and South Korea, among other places,” Columbia University said online Thursday. “Presently, the immediate health risk to members of the Columbia community is considered low. However, the potential public health threat posed by COVID-19 globally is high, so this risk assessment to our community may change."
In South Korea, the University of Wisconsin-Madison was among schools that suspended their programs after cases of the coronavirus escalated. The virus was first detected in neighboring China in Wuhan, host to several universities where many international students languish in lockdown.
Kyle Patel, who was supposed to travel with a professor from the University of Georgia to South Korea on March 9, was excited about the coronavirus.
"I'm pre-med and also public health. I study epidemiology, so I thought it would be really cool to be there at a time when this outbreak is going on,” Patel said.
"As long as it’s minimal enough for us not to be in danger. ... Not everyone saw that, because they don't necessarily study this, but I thought it was just a really interesting perspective.”
Trip to China canceled
Eric Kinyon was eager to get to China to teach English at ABIE Xian, a private English school in Xian. He had spent four months interviewing and took six trips to Washington from North Carolina to secure his papers to attend school and travel.
At 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, seven hours before his flight was scheduled to depart, his trip was canceled because of the coronavirus. United Airlines refunded his airfare, but for now he just waits for the virus outbreak to recede to start his assignment.
Kleiman said he was staying at a friend’s house outside Milan, “trying to read some of the initial class notes that have been posted for my classes for the first week, trying to advance my thesis, and watching movies/playing video games.”
Ciara Kennedy-Mercer contributed to this report.