No clear link between school opening and COVID surge, study finds

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – Widespread reopening of schools after lockdowns and vacations is generally not linked to rising COVID-19 rates, a study of 191 countries has found, but lockdown closures will leave a 2020 “pandemic learning debt” of 300 billion missed school days.

The analysis, by the Zurich-based independent educational foundation Insights for Education, said 84% of those 300 billion days would be lost by children in poorer countries, and warned that 711 million pupils were still out of school.

“It’s been assumed that opening schools will drive infections, and that closing schools will reduce transmission, but the reality is much more complex,” said IfE’s founder and chief executive Randa Grob-Zakhary.

The vast majority – 92% – of countries that are through their first wave of COVID-19 infections have started to reopen school systems, even as some are seeing a second surge.

IfE found that 52 countries that sent students back to school in August and September – including France and Spain – saw infection rates rise during the vacation compared to when they were closed.

In Britain and Hungary, however, infection levels dropped after initial school closures, remained low during the holidays, and began rising after reopening.

Full analysis of these 52 countries found no firm correlation between school status and infections – pointing to a need to consider other factors, IfE said.

“The key now is to learn from those countries that are reopening effectively against a backdrop of rising infections,” Grob-Zakhary said.

The report said 44 countries have kept schools closed.

It found countries are developing strategies for schools during the pandemic – including some, such as Italy, France, which order temporary school closures on a case-by-case basis.

Other measures include policies on masks, class rotations and combining remote with in-school lessons.

“This first real global test highlights what school life looks like in a COVID-world,” said Grob-Zakhary. “Understanding how countries undergoing a massive second wave are dealing with this new reality in the classroom is essential to guide future reopening decisions and to help schools remain open.”

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Spain sentences Salvadoran ex-officer to 133 years in jail over priests’ massacre

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain’s High Court sentenced a former army colonel from El Salvador on Friday to 133 years in prison for the murder of five Spanish Jesuit priests in 1989 during the Central American country’s civil war.

Inocente Orlando Montano Morales, 77, was also found responsible by the judges for the murders of the priests’ housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter, as well as a local Jesuit priest. The court could not convict him of these crimes because his extradition to Spain did not cover these cases.

The massacre was one of the most notorious acts of a decade-long civil war during which 75,000 people were killed and 8,000 went missing.

The judges said they found Montano Morales guilty of five counts of “murder of terrorist nature,” adding that the killings were committed by the state apparatus, making them what “is commonly known as terrorism implemented by the state”.

They added that the total maximum prison term is 30 years.

Montano Morales has been in custody since 2011 when he was arrested in the United States on immigration fraud charges. He was deported to Spain in 2017.

The Spanish government has indicted 20 former Salvadoran army officers for the killings of the priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. One of the priests, Father Ignacio Ellacuria, was a prominent critic of the U.S.-backed right-wing government.

The massacre occurred on Nov. 16, 1989, when a group of soldiers from the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion entered the campus of the Central American University where Ellacuria was rector.

Ellacuria had advocated a negotiated settlement to the military-led junta government’s war against the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). International revulsion at the murders of the priests helped to push through such a solution, with the war ending in 1992.

(Reporting by Nathan Allen and Andrei Khalip; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Frances Kerry)

Swiss add Paris, Vienna to list of areas for coronavirus quarantine

ZURICH (Reuters) – Switzerland has added the regions around Paris and Vienna to its list of areas with high COVID-19 infection rates requiring incoming travelers to enter quarantine for 10 days.

The government said it was adopting a regional approach for neighboring countries for the measures which will come into force on Sept. 14. As part of this, it named Ile de France and the Vienna region as areas with a raised risk of infection.

The government also put the Czech Republic and all of Spain on its list of entire countries with a quarantine requirement, which already includes the United States,  India and Brazil.

“It is not a good idea to go to high-risk areas,” Health Minister Alain Berset told a media conference, advising Swiss travelers to steer clear of places on the list.

Switzerland, which has had quarantine restrictions since July 6, said it was responding to a spike in infection numbers in the country.

Switzerland reported 528 new cases of the coronavirus on Friday, the highest daily rise in infections since early April.

As part of its new approach, the government said only regions of neighboring countries where the infection rate is above its limit of 60 cases per 100,000 people will be added to the list, rather then the entire country.

Border regions may be exempted from the list to take into account the close interaction with neighboring regions, it said.

Thousands of workers cross Switzerland’s borders with France, Germany and Italy daily to work in Geneva, Basel and the southern canton of Ticino.

(Reporting by John Revill; Editing by Michael Shields)

Steroids cut death rates among critically ill COVID-19 patients, major study finds

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – Treating critically ill COVID-19 patients with corticosteroid drugs reduces the risk of death by 20%, an analysis of seven international trials found on Wednesday, prompting the World Health Organisation to update its advice on treatment.

The analysis – which pooled data from separate trials of low dose hydrocortisone, dexamethasone and methylprednisolone – found that steroids improve survival rates of COVID-19 patients sick enough to be in intensive care in hospital.

“This is equivalent to around 68% of (the sickest COVID-19) patients surviving after treatment with corticosteroids, compared to around 60% surviving in the absence of corticosteroids,” the researchers said in a statement.

The WHO’s clinical care lead, Janet Diaz, said the agency had updated its advice to include a “strong recommendation” for use of steroids in patients with severe and critical COVID-19.

“The evidence shows that if you give corticosteroids …(there are) 87 fewer deaths per 1,000 patients,” she told a WHO social media live event. “Those are lives … saved.”

“Steroids are a cheap and readily available medication, and our analysis has confirmed that they are effective in reducing deaths amongst the people most severely affected by COVID-19,” Jonathan Sterne, a professor of medical statistics and epidemiology at Britain’s Bristol University who worked on the analysis, told the briefing.

He said the trials – conducted by researchers in Britain, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Spain, and the United States – gave a consistent message throughout, showing the drugs were beneficial in the sickest patients regardless of age or sex or how long patients had been ill.

The findings, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, reinforce results that were hailed as a major breakthrough and announced in June, when dexamethasone became the first drug shown to be able to reduce death rates among severely sick COVID-19 patients.

Dexamethasone has been in widespread use in intensive care wards treating COVID-19 patients in some countries since then.

Martin Landray, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Oxford who worked on the dexamethasone trial that was a key part of the pooled analysis published on Wednesday, said the results mean doctors in hospitals across the world can safely switch to using the drugs to save lives.

CLEAR BENEFITS

“These results are clear, and instantly usable in clinical practice,” he told reporters. “Among critically ill patients with COVID-19, low-dose corticosteroids … significantly reduce the risk of death.”

Researchers said the benefit was shown regardless of whether patients were on ventilation at the time they started treatment. They said the WHO would update its guidelines immediately to reflect the fresh results.

Until the June findings on dexamethasone, no effective treatment had been shown to reduce death rates in patients with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

More than 25 million people have been infected with COVID-19 and 856,876​ have died, according to a Reuters tally.

Gilead Sciences Inc’s remdesivir was authorized by United States regulators in May for use in patients with severe COVID-19 after trial data showed the antiviral drug helped shorten hospital recovery time.

Anthony Gordon, an Imperial College London professor who also worked on the analysis, said its results were good news for patients who become critically ill with COVID-19, but would not be enough to end outbreaks or ease infection control measures.

“Impressive as these results are, this is not a cure. We now have something that will help, but it is not a cure, so it’s vital that we keep up all the prevention strategies.”

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Catherine Evans)

J&J to start mid-stage coronavirus vaccine trials in three European countries

By Nathan Allen

MADRID (Reuters) – Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen unit will begin mid-stage trials for its coronavirus vaccine in Spain, the Netherlands and Germany next week, Spain’s health minister said on Friday, as the U.S. drugmaker expands testing for its experimental shot.

The Phase II trial will last two months and include 550 participants across the three countries, including 190 people in Spain, Salvador Illa told a news conference in Madrid.

“It’s a vote of confidence in our health system,” Illa said, adding it was the first human trial for a coronavirus vaccine to be approved in Spain.

The study will focus on healthy people between the ages of 18 and 55 as well as people over 65.

Johnson & Johnson said the study will evaluate the safety and the ability to induce an immune response from single dose and two-dose regimens of the vaccine candidate, the company said in a statement.

Spain, which has western Europe’s highest tally of coronavirus cases, is also working with AstraZeneca via the European Union’s vaccine procurement program to secure sufficient doses.

J&J’s website says if the latest trials are successful, it will begin final Phase III studies, in which even more volunteers will receive the experimental vaccine.

More than 150 potential vaccines are being developed and tested globally to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, with 30 in human trials.

There is so far no approved vaccine, except one authorized in Russia before large-scale trials.

J&J is carrying out tests in the United States and Belgium, and this week added Chile, Argentina and Peru to the list of Latin American nations where it plans to conduct Phase III trials on 60,000 volunteers, in a study that will also cover Brazil, Colombia and Mexico.

The company’s potential vaccine uses “viral vectors” to generate immune responses, similar to the approach taken by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca in their experimental vaccine, as well as China’s CanSino.

(Reporting by Nathan Allen and Jose Elías Rodríguez; editing by Mark Potter and Jason Neely)

Proportion of youth with COVID-19 triples in five months: WHO

By Ankur Banerjee and Stephanie Nebehay

(Reuters) – Young people who are hitting nightclubs and beaches are leading a rise in fresh coronavirus cases across the world, with the proportion of those aged 15 to 24 who are infected rising three-fold in about five months, the World Health Organization said.

An analysis by the WHO of 6 million infections between Feb. 24 and July 12 found that the share of people aged 15-24 years rose to 15% from 4.5%.

Apart from the United States which leads a global tally with 4.8 million total cases, European countries including Spain, Germany and France, and Asian countries such as Japan, have said that many of the newly infected are young people.

“Younger people tend to be less vigilant about masking and social distancing,” Neysa Ernst, nurse manager at Johns Hopkins Hospital’s biocontainment unit in Baltimore, Maryland told Reuters in an email.

“Travel increases your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19,” she said, adding young people are more likely to go to work in the community, to a beach or the pub, or to buy groceries.

The surge in new cases, a so-called second wave of infections, has prompted some countries to impose new curbs on travel even as companies race to find a vaccine for the fast-spreading virus that has claimed more than 680,000 lives and upended economies.

Even countries such as Vietnam, widely praised for its mitigation efforts since the coronavirus appeared in late January, are battling new clusters of infection.

Among those aged 5-14 years, about 4.6% were infected, up from 0.8%, between Feb. 24 and July 12, the WHO said, at a time when testing has risen and public health experts are concerned that reopening of schools may lead to a surge in cases.

Anthony Fauci, the leading U.S. expert on infectious diseases, urged young people last month to continue to socially distance, wear masks and avoid crowds, and cautioned that asymptomatic people could spread the virus, too.

Indeed, health experts in several countries have urged similar measures as they report that infected youth show few symptoms.

“We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again: young people are not invincible,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news briefing in Geneva last week.

“Young people can be infected; young people can die; and young people can transmit the virus to others.”

Last month, Tokyo officials said they would conduct coronavirus testing in the city’s nightlife districts, and instructed nightclubs to provide customers with enough space with good ventilation and to ask them to avoid speaking loudly.

In France last month, authorities shut down a bar where people breached hygiene rules and caused an outbreak.

(Reporting by Ankur Banerjee and Vishwadha Chander in Bengaluru and Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Sayantani Ghosh and Bernadette Baum)

New travel curbs imposed as world tackles second COVID-19 wave

By Stephen Coates and Peter Graff

SYDNEY/LONDON (Reuters) – Nations in Asia imposed new restrictions on Monday and an abrupt British quarantine on travelers from Spain threw Europe’s summer reopening into disarray, as the world confronted the prospect of a second wave of COVID-19 infections.

In the United States, where infection rates have been climbing since mid-June, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien became the most senior White House official to test positive.

Surges were reported in a number of countries previously singled out as places where the virus was under control.

Australia recorded a record daily rise. Vietnam locked down the city of Danang, forcing tens of thousands of visitors to evacuate. Mainland China confirmed the most new locally transmitted cases since early March. Papua New Guinea shut its borders.

Hong Kong banned gatherings of more than two people, closed down restaurant dining and introduced mandatory face masks in public places, including outdoors.

Just weeks after European countries trumpeted the reopening of tourism, a surge in infections in Spain prompted Britain to order all travelers from there to quarantine for two weeks, torpedoing the travel plans of hundreds of thousands of people.

The World Health Organization said travel restrictions could not be the answer for the long term, and countries had to do more to halt the spread inside their borders by adopting proven strategies such as social distancing and the wearing of masks.

“It is going to be almost impossible for individual countries to keep their borders shut for the foreseeable future. Economies have to open up, people have to work, trade has to resume,” WHO emergencies program director Mike Ryan said.

“What is clear is pressure on the virus pushes the numbers down. Release that pressure and cases creep back up.”

NOT LIKE BEFORE

Officials in some of the European and Asian countries where the virus is again spreading say new outbreaks will not be as bad as the original waves that hit earlier this year, and can be contained with local measures rather than nationwide shutdowns.

But countries that have suffered extreme economic hardship from months of lockdowns are also determined not to let the virus get out of control again, even if that means reversing the path to reopening.

Europe has yet to lift bans on travelers from many countries, including the United States where the White House said national security adviser O’Brien presented no risk of infection for Trump or Vice President Mike Pence.

Britain’s announcement of the return of quarantine for Spain was likely to torpedo the revival of airlines and tourism businesses across the continent, which had thought they had survived their biggest crisis in living memory.

Britain accounts for more than 20% of foreign visitors to Spain, where tourism represents 12% of the economy.

Europe’s biggest airline, Ryanair, cut its annual passenger target by a quarter on Monday and warned a second wave of COVID-19 infections could lower that further.

A British junior health minister said more European countries could end up on the “red list” if infections surge.

“If we see the rates going up, we would have to take action because we cannot take the risk of coronavirus being spread again across the UK,” Helen Whately told Sky News when asked if Germany or France might be next after Spain.

In China, which managed to squelch local transmission through firm lockdowns after the virus first emerged in the central city of Wuhan late last year, a new surge has been driven by infections in the far western region of Xinjiang.

In the northeast, Liaoning province reported a fifth straight day of new infections and Jilin province reported two new cases, its first since late May.

Australian authorities who have imposed a six-week lockdown in parts of the southeastern state of Victoria said it could last longer after the country’s highest daily increase in infections.

“The tragedy of COVID-19 is that we know, with the number of new infections that we have seen today, that there will be many further deaths in the days ahead,” Australian Deputy Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd told reporters.

In Japan, the government said it would urge business leaders to ramp up anti-virus measures such as staggered shifts, and aimed to see rates of telecommuting return to levels achieved during an earlier state of emergency.

“At one point, commuter numbers were down by 70 to 80%, but now it’s only about 30%,” Economy Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said late on Sunday. “We really don’t want to backtrack on this, so we have to explore new ways of working and keep telecommuting high.”

Vietnam is evacuating 80,000 people, mostly local tourists, from Danang after three residents tested positive at the weekend. Until Saturday, the country had reported no community infections since April.

North Korean state media reported on the weekend that the border town of Kaesong was in lockdown after a person who defected to South Korea three years ago returned this month with symptoms of COVID-19. If confirmed, it would be the first case officially acknowledged by Pyongyang.

Papua New Guinea halted entry for travellers from Monday, except those arriving by air, as it tightens curbs against infections that have more than doubled over the past week.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Stephen Coates and Peter Graff; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Latest on the spread of the coronavirus around the world

(Reuters) – The number of confirmed infections of the novel coronavirus were reported to have exceeded 1.5 million globally and the death toll rose above 89,400, according to a Reuters tally as of 1400 GMT.

DEATHS AND INFECTIONS

* For an interactive graphic tracking the global spread, open https://tmsnrt.rs/3aIRuz7 in an external browser.

* U.S.-focused tracker with state-by-state and county map, open https://tmsnrt.rs/2w7hX9T in an external browser.

EUROPE

* Spain’s prime minister warned that nationwide confinement would likely last until May even though he said the worst should soon be over and the death toll slowed.

* Italy may start lifting some restrictions by the end of April provided the slowing trend continues, its prime minister told the BBC, but the easing can only be gradual.

* Germany’s health minister said restrictions are flattening the curve showing new cases.

* British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is getting better but remains in intensive care as his government reviews the most stringent shutdown in the peacetime history.

* Russia reported a record one-day rise in cases, pushing its tally to more than 10,000, a day after President Vladimir Putin said the coming weeks would prove decisive in the fight against the virus.

* The Czech Republic plans to roll out a system of quickly tracking and isolating contacts of people with the virus to eventually allow the lifting of blanket restrictions.

* Slovakia closed off several Roma settlements in the eastern part of the country after reports of virus clusters in five of them.

* Bulgaria’s prime minister said the country’s Orthodox churches and temples will be open for traditional Palm Sunday and Easter services despite the outbreak.

AMERICAS

* The top U.S. infectious disease expert warned against reopening the economy too soon after a downward revisions in the projected death toll.

* The White House is expected to announce soon formation of a second coronavirus task force, this one devoted to getting the economy going again when the time is right.

* The U.S. Senate failed to pass an additional $250 billion of aid intended to help small businesses as Democrats and Republicans blocked each other’s proposals.

* Canada’s death toll is set to soar from the current 435 to as high as 22,000 by the end of the pandemic, while the economy lost a record 1 million jobs last month.

* Brazil’s health minister said the country’s attempts to purchase thousands of ventilators from China fell through and the government is now looking to Brazilian companies to build the devices.

* Mexico has reported more than 3,000 cases, but many who are infected likely did not have symptoms or were not diagnosed, with the actual number estimated at 26,500.

ASIA AND THE PACIFIC

* China will allocate more resources to prevent the spread of the virus from its land borders, as the country still faces risks of a comeback after new clusters are identified in some regions.

* The total number of infections in Japan hit more than 5,300 on Thursday, showing no signs of slowing despite a state of emergency being imposed on Tokyo and six other areas.

* India claimed initial success in its fight against the epidemic, saying it would have been hit with 820,000 cases by next week had it not imposed a nationwide lockdown.

* Vietnam said more than 1,000 healthcare workers and 14,400 others linked to an outbreak at a Hanoi hospital have tested negative.

* Singapore confirmed 287 new infections on Thursday, its biggest daily increase yet, with more than 200 of them linked to outbreaks in dormitories for foreign workers.

* Indonesia reported its biggest daily jump in deaths on Thursday, while neighbouring Malaysia had its second-lowest daily increase since a partial lockdown was imposed on March 18.

* Australian police said they have taken the “black box” of a cruise ship which disembarked hundreds of infected passengers in Sydney, as part of a homicide investigation into the country’s deadliest infection source.

MIDDLE EAST AND AFRICA

* All Botswana’s parliamentarians including the president will be quarantined for two weeks and tested, after a health worker screening lawmakers for the virus tested positive.

* Lebanon extended its almost month-long shutdown by another two weeks until April 26.

* Political and physical divisions in the West Bank and Gaza have induced two very different responses, with a strict lockdown in the first and crowds milling about freely in the second.

* A South African public sector union withdrew a court case against the government over shortages of protective gear for frontline health workers.

ECONOMIC FALLOUT

* Global equity benchmarks gained on Thursday following signs that governments and central banks are taking additional steps to bolster their economies as measures to slow the spread of the pandemic appear to be working.

* The pandemic will turn global economic growth “sharply negative” in 2020, triggering the worst fallout since the 1930s Great Depression, with only a partial recovery seen in 2021, the head of the International Monetary Fund said.

* The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits in the last three weeks has blown past 15 million, with weekly new claims topping 6 million for the second straight time.

* The U.S. Federal Reserve rolled out a broad, $2.3 trillion effort to bolster local governments and small and mid-sized businesses.

* U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that aid for airlines will be the “next big thing” to be rolled out.

* The European Union faces an existential threat if it cannot come together to combat the crisis, Italy said on Thursday as the divided bloc sought to salvage talks on a rescue package.

* The Bank of England has agreed temporarily to finance government borrowing if funds cannot immediately be raised from debt markets, reviving a measure last widely used during the 2008 financial crisis.

(Compiled by Sarah Morland, Milla Nissi, Aditya Soni and Uttaresh.V; Editing by Tomasz Janowski, Arun Koyyur and Anil D’Silva)

Exclusive: How elite U.S. college students brought Covid-19 home from campus

By Anna Irrera and Steve Stecklow

(Reuters) – Like many American colleges, Vanderbilt University in Nashville announced last month it was closing its dormitories and putting classes online because of the growing threat of coronavirus. It said it was acting “out of an abundance of caution” after a local healthcare worker had tested positive for the disease.

The message was lost on many students.

Before leaving campus and returning to their homes and families throughout the United States and abroad, more than 100 Vanderbilt students attended parties, ignoring the school’s explicit instructions not to do so. They crowded into apartment complexes and other locations, and posed for group pictures they posted on Instagram. Many celebrated St. Patrick’s Day six days early – on the same day New York City announced it was cancelling its traditional annual parade.

One photo of a March 11 party, posted on Instagram and seen by Reuters, shows a student in a makeshift hazmat suit, a black mask and green bowler hat with shamrocks, as a large group of students party in the background. “I dare you to give me corona,” reads the picture’s caption. The photo’s location jokingly claims to be “Wuhan, China” — the origin of the global pandemic.

Some Vanderbilt students later learned they were infected with the virus, known as COVID-19. A private online group of students who say they have contracted coronavirus had 107 members this week, with most stating they had mild or moderate symptoms, according to posts seen by Reuters. Vanderbilt University Medical Center, an independent hospital near the campus, also reported 86 employees have tested positive for coronavirus to date, according to a spokeswoman.

The example of Vanderbilt – a prestigious, private research institution in America’s South – shows that risky behavior by some young people extended far beyond the spring break mob scenes on Florida beaches that emerged last month. It illustrates the role students at some colleges – particularly those with a global footprint – have played in the pandemic.

Other colleges have also reported coronavirus outbreaks. Forty-four students at the University of Texas at Austin tested positive for the disease after returning from spring break in Mexico, according to a state university spokeswoman. In March, the University of Tampa said five students traveling together during spring break had tested positive.

In a statement, Vanderbilt said: “Just as for our peers around the country, COVID-19 has created unprecedented challenges for our community as we have sought, above all, to protect the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff. Vanderbilt has regularly communicated with our community about the essential steps the university is taking, and that they must take, to limit the spread of disease.”

The university declined to answer questions about how many students have contracted coronavirus, citing federal student privacy law.

TRAVELS IN EUROPE

Vanderbilt began its spring break earlier than many schools. It took place between Feb. 29 and March 8, a time in which the pandemic, which began in China, was beginning to seriously affect Europe, but hadn’t yet significantly hit the United States.

“Vandy” is an elite school with a large cohort of well-to-do students. Many travel abroad during spring break, especially Europe. They often visit other Vanderbilt students attending study-abroad programs.

On Feb. 25, Vanderbilt warned students not to travel to China or South Korea – two coronavirus hot spots – and to reconsider making non-essential trips to other countries with serious outbreaks. International students were advised not to leave the United States at all.

One country that hadn’t yet reported many cases was Spain. Max Schulman, a Vanderbilt junior, said he traveled to Barcelona with more than a dozen classmates and estimated that about 50 Vanderbilt students in all were there during spring break. Spain has since emerged as one of the epicenters of the global outbreak.

Schulman said he felt tired, restless and “delirious” on his flight back. Instead of returning to campus, he went to his family’s home in Long Island, New York, and later tested positive for coronavirus.

Other Vanderbilt students who traveled to Spain and other European countries returned to the Nashville campus.

On March 8, an online petition started by Chinese first-year student Yihan Li asked Vanderbilt to cancel classes to protect students’ health, as the number of infections in the Nashville area slowly rose. “There have been two confirmed cases in Nashville and our students are returning from all over the world after the spring break,” the petition stated. “It is at great risk to hold classes as normal.” More than 2,000 people signed. Vanderbilt has about 12,000 full-time undergraduate and graduate students, according to its website.

The same day, the university informed students that there were no confirmed cases on campus. It also noted that an unidentified student who had studied abroad but hadn’t returned to Nashville had tested positive. The announcement followed a story in the campus newspaper, the Vanderbilt Hustler, that a student in a program in Italy had later tested positive in Chicago.

Classes resumed on Monday, March 9. By the end of the day, the school disclosed that several students on campus reported they had been exposed to an unidentified individual who tested positive that day. It announced it was cancelling classes for the rest of the week and would soon move them online through March. The announcement added: “To be clear, the university will remain open.”

At the time, scores of other American colleges and universities were taking steps to cancel classes and switch to online instruction, according to data compiled by Bryan Alexander, a senior scholar at Georgetown University.

A picture of Vanderbilt’s announcement appeared on a satirical Instagram account with this comment: “Let spring break pt. 2 begin.” That night, some students began partying to both commiserate and celebrate over the end of classes, one student told Reuters.

On March 10, Vanderbilt issued a warning to campus residents: “There should be no parties/gatherings; students are encouraged to maintain social distance and minimize interactions with others.” The college was two days ahead of Nashville’s mayor in urging social distancing.

Some seniors worried their college days were coming to an abrupt end and the campus would soon clear out, students said. Their fears soon came true: On March 11, Vanderbilt told students that a healthcare worker at Vanderbilt University Medical Center had tested positive and classes would go on line for the rest of the semester. Undergraduates living on campus should leave within four days.

PARTY TIME

Planned St. Patrick’s Day parties were moved up. The event is an annual tradition for many Vanderbilt students, who refer to it as “St Fratty’s” because many parties are held at fraternity houses.

“We’re all here and we’re ready to fire one last time before our college careers are ended” by coronavirus, stated one Facebook post announcing an off-campus St Patrick’s Day party. Several students who attended the party later tested positive for coronavirus, according to a student. Reuters could not independently confirm this.

Another “St Fratty’s” celebration kicked off in the rooftop courtyard of Wesley Place apartments, a residential complex that is home to third-year and fourth-year students. Instagram pictures depict clusters of students clad in green, chatting in close proximity, drinking from beer cans and red cups, and posing together for pictures.

In one photo, a group of seven young women dressed in green huddle together, hugging and holding hands. A photo collage posted by Vanderbilt’s chapter of the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority showed small groups of young, green-clad women smiling, hugging and posing for pictures. The sorority didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Following the Wesley Place party, students dispersed to other locations, including off-campus fraternity houses and another apartment complex, according to students and social media posts.

One video shows several dozen students in a backyard dancing, hugging and drinking. Text overlaying the video reads, “Schools out forever,” while the caption reads, “the luck of the Irish did not grace Vanderbilt this st frattys.”

That same day, March 11, three news developments smashed America’s complacency about the disease. President Donald Trump imposed a 30-day ban on foreigners traveling from Europe, the National Basketball Association suspended its season, and movie star Tom Hanks announced he and his wife had tested positive for coronavirus in Australia.

Some Vanderbilt students soon were reporting in private chat groups that they had contracted coronavirus.

A private group called “Covid Family” that consists of students who said they had contracted the virus grew to 107 members. In one poll of 80 students, a dozen answered “yes” to whether they had coronavirus, according to a screenshot. Reuters couldn’t determine if the self-reported diagnoses were accurate.

One infected student interviewed by Reuters attended off-campus parties and experienced symptoms on March 15 after returning home. The student’s mother also developed mild symptoms. The student said the exact source of the infection was impossible to know.

Sophia Yan, a first-year Vanderbilt student from China, told Reuters she found out she had contracted coronavirus upon returning home to the Chinese city of Shenzhen on March 17. She said she didn’t attend any parties on campus, leading her to suspect the virus was more widespread at Vanderbilt than students and the administration realize.

She said she believes the university should have required students to report all their travels during spring break and released information about any who had tested positive, such as their whereabouts and what classes they attended.

“Unfortunately, Vanderbilt’s lack of effective measures largely reflects how the United States as a whole is dealing with this crisis,” she said. “To combat this pandemic, U.S. federal and state governments, as well as the American people, must recognize the severity and urgency of the matter.”

Vanderbilt didn’t respond to a specific question about Yan’s comments.

But it said because of federal student privacy law, “we are unable to disclose widely within the Vanderbilt community personally identifiable information about any student who has tested positive for COVID-19.”

Netra Rastogi, a Vanderbilt sophomore, doesn’t fault the administration. “I don’t think they realized that so many students at Vanderbilt wouldn’t take this whole situation seriously.”

(reporting by Anna Irrera and Steve Stecklow; editing by Janet McBride)

Spain’s coronavirus death toll surpasses 4,000

MADRID (Reuters) – Spain registered 655 fatalities from the coronavirus over the past 24 hours – down from over 700 on Wednesday, the health ministry reported on Thursday as the total death toll from the epidemic in the country rose to over 4,000.

The overall number of coronavirus cases soared to 56,188 from 47,610 on Wednesday. The number of reported deaths from the virus rose to 4,089 from 3,434 on Wednesday, the ministry said.

(Reporting by Nathan Allen and Inti Landauro)