Faculty member, former CDC researcher brings expertise on coronavirus to class

man with phone photos representing the coronavirus near his head
Doug Graham, professor of biomedical sciences, worked at the CDC during the global SARS virus. He finds differences with how China is managing the current virus outbreak. The phone images represent the coronavirus.
Image Credit: Kendra Stanley-Mills

Like other universities around the country, Grand Valley continues to monitor the coronavirus and its global impact.

For faculty members with expertise in viruses and public health emergencies, some class discussions have diverted to current news about the virus rather than scheduled topics.

Doug Graham, professor of biomedical sciences, said it was early in January when a student in his Introduction to Microbiology class raised a hand and asked, "Is this something we need to worry about?"

Graham would be a good person to ask. Prior to joining Grand Valley's faculty, he was a post-doctoral fellow at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and was working there in 2003 when the SARS virus was identified. He said the two viruses affect the respiratory system and both originated in China, but there are differences in how the current outbreak is being handled by the Chinese government.

"In late 2002-2003, colleagues at the CDC were reaching out to Chinese authorities as was the World Health Organization to say, 'Let us help,'" Graham said. "It was three months before the government realized they needed help and by that time SARS was out of control."

He said recent actions like restricting air travel to China, locking down the city of Wuhan and placing travelers from the country in quarantine may seem extreme and "draconian" to some people. "It's due, in part, to lessons learned on China's part from the SARS outbreak," he said. 

Ranelle Brew, associate professor and chair of public health, said it's natural in her discipline to discuss real-world cases with students as awareness and education are hallmarks of public health. "It seems every few years public health is in the spotlight for an outbreak," Brew said.

• University administrators have canceled study abroad programs to China for the winter semester as the U.S. Department of State has implemented a heightened travel advisory to the country due to the coronavirus.

Michael Vrooman, interim chief international officer, said one student had planned to study in China this semester (universities there begin winter classes in February), and Padnos International Center staff are working with the student to identify an alternative site.

There are students from China currently enrolled at Grand Valley; Vrooman said PIC staff members maintain regular contact with them to provide support.

Study abroad programs planned in China in the spring/summer semester will continue as planned, Vrooman said, and PIC staff will continue to monitor travel advisories and recommendations.

Brew recommended visiting the CDC website to stay informed about the virus.