University Epidemiologist Talks Coronavirus and Contingency Plans

In the wake of the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions’ recent warnings on the spread of the COVID-19 (known as coronavirus), South Dakota School of Mines & Technology lecturer and epidemiologist Elizabeth Racz, Ph.D., MPH, advises people to be cautious and use common sense.

“Don’t panic, but be prepared,” Racz says. “Protect yourself by sleeping well, eating well, keeping your immune system in good shape.” In addition, think about your “community” in case of a quarantine or illness, and consider what you would need, she says, “Who will you help and who will help you? What resources will you need?”

As of Feb. 27, there were 82,294 reported cases of coronavirus worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and 62 in the United States, according to the CDC. The South Dakota Department of Health currently shows zero cases in the state.

The coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan City in China in January and has spread around the world in a relatively short period. Like the viruses SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, coronavirus spread from animals to humans, although the definitive animal source has yet to be identified, Racz says. The “spillover” of the virus was likely due to human consumption of an animal or proximity to the animal, Racz says. The virus is now spreading from human to human, according to the CDC. Racz says in most cases of animal to human spread, the viruses don’t become contagious between humans as quickly as coronavirus did. This is just one of the “unique” things about this virus, she says. The current death rate from the coronavirus is approximately 2% with the highest death rate for people – particularly men – older than 60. Symptoms of the virus include fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Like many universities, South Dakota Mines has been monitoring the coronavirus situation since it first surfaced, adding i nformation and resources on its website for students in January, according to South Dakota Mines President Jim Rankin.

The university has an emergency management plan and an emergency management team that meets and trains regularly to address situations such as a virus outbreak. In the event of a contagious disease outbreak on campus, the university would follow the recommendations of the CDC, the State Epidemiologist, the SD Dept of Health, healthcare providers on campus and other health officials, Rankin says. “We would be working closely with emergency management officials in local, state, and federal offices to ensure the safety of our students, faculty and staff,” he says.

The South Dakota Board of Regents is also keeping a close eye on the outbreak, releasing a statement that reads, “Our campuses monitor these types of situations closely and they have processes/procedures in place to assess and address any impact on operations resulting therefrom. At present, our campuses are continuing to follow their normal processes for monitoring and addressing issues such as this, and no special system action has been taken with respect to the Coronavirus specifically.”


Racz, who teaches in the chemistry, biology and health sciences department, said one complication in this outbreak is that many people who become infected could be asymptomatic, but still infectious. For that reason, common sense measures are needed to prevent a spread. These include: 

  • Wash hands regularly and properly
  • Do not touch your face, including your eyes
  • Cover cough with arm or cloth
  • Stay home when sick. Racz points out that employers have a responsibility to their employees to encourage them to take sick time without fear of job loss.
  • Keep surfaces, light switches, doorknobs clean
  • Maintain good sleep hygiene
  • Eat healthy
  • Reduce stress

Racz says much is not known about this virus because it’s completely new to humans. “Our bodies have never seen this before,” she says. “Our bodies are naïve to this virus.” According to the CDC, it could be more than a year before a vaccine can be developed to combat the coronavirus.

In the meantime, Racz urges people to obtain their information about the virus from reputable sources such as the CDC and the World Health Organization.

Dr. Elizabeth Rcaz, an epidemiologist at South Dakota Mines, lectures to a biology class on virology this week. The image she is holding is COVID-19 or coronavirus.

Don’t panic, but be prepared.