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Most employees ordered to work remotely from home, students taking classes online as well

PHOTO COURTESY OF GFU - George Fox officials confirmed Sunday afternoon that a traditional undergraduate student has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.

(Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was first posted on Sunday afternoon)

School officials confirmed Sunday afternoon that a student at George Fox University in Newberg has contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

In an update released Sunday afternoon, the school's director of health and counseling services and dean of student services, Bill Buhrow, was concise in alerting the campus community: "Today, George Fox University was informed that a traditional undergraduate student tested positive for COVID-19."

He added that state and federal guidelines required discretion in releasing details of the case.

"We recognize our inability to communicate specifics related to this positive case may cause frustration and we appreciate your understanding as we adhere to the guidelines provided to us by our governing bodies," Buhrow said.

Buhrow advised that under guidelines provided by the Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC) and Oregon Health Authority, the school is barred from releasing information about the student, including name, age, major, living situation, health condition and other facts.

Instead, the school was referring questions to the Yamhill County Health Department, who in turn referred questions to the Washington County Public Health Department. That department's spokeswoman, Wendy Gordon, explained the reasoning behind her department's involvement in the case: "When a person tests positive for COVID-19, the county of residence is notified. Public health staff reach out to that individual to interview them and provide health education."

County health departments faced with a COVID-19 case defer to the Oregon Health Authority, which has created a 13-page set of guidelines that ranges from reporting and "surveillance" to the roots of the virus in China, an in-depth description of the malady, testing guidelines, follow-up and controlling further spread of the disease.

Gordon added that to her knowledge George Fox is unique when it comes to the virus. "We are not aware of any college in our area that have had a case associated," she said.

The diagnosis is just the latest in developments from the university over the past two weeks. On March 13, the school extended spring break from one to two weeks, while acknowledging that some classes would require online tests or assignments from March 16 to 20. That same day the university ordered that undergrad classes would be held remotely from March 30 to at least April 10, while also indicating that residence halls, administrative offices and other facilities would remain open through the semester, due to end May 1.

On March 17, the school ordered that classes would only be held by remote instruction through the end of the semester. Residence halls would remain open, the school said, but it also encouraged students to return to their homes if at all possible. All campus activities were cancelled as well.

Word that a confirmed case of the virus had been verified reached the campus community Sunday afternoon. Employees of the 2,700-student institution were encouraged to work remotely, "while still keeping the university operational."

GFU spokesman Rob Felton said that students began leaving campus on March 12 when the school transitioned to remote instruction, but some still remain.

"Fewer than 100 of our 1,280 on-campus residential students remain on campus and we anticipate that number will continue to decline over the next few days," he commented on Monday afternoon.

The school has mounted a vigorous program to rid its buildings of the virus.

"Residence halls are deep-cleaned twice a week and all high-touch surfaces are being disinfected at least once per day," Felton said. "This includes main entries, all common areas, elevators, handrails and restrooms."

The university is deferring to public health officials on the next steps for those individuals who may have exposed to the virus, either through direct contact with the infected student or through incidental contact.

"We are providing space on campus for those who self-quarantine if they are unable to return to their homes," Felton said.

The virus' affect on commencement ceremonies slated for May 2 remain to be seen. "At this time no decisions have been made on graduation ceremonies," he said.

The level that the virus has disrupted the university is not unprecedented, but the last example was 102 years ago and was historic.

"George Fox (then Pacific College) shut down for four weeks because of the 1918 influenza pandemic," Felton said.

The so-called Spanish Flu, one the largest epidemics in recorded history, was responsible for the deaths of upwards of 17.4 million people.

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