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Coronavirus (COVID-19) Frequently Asked Questions

What is the coronavirus?


The 2019 novel coronavirus, now known as COVID-19, is a member of a large family of viruses, which can cause a variety of illnesses in animals and humans. One type of coronavirus causes about 20% of common colds in humans. Other types of coronavirus have caused more serious illnesses in the past, such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

After apparently originating in the Wuhan province of China, the coronavirus (COVID-19) spread outward to several other areas, including North America. Like all members of the coronavirus family, it has a single strand of RNA to carry its genetic code. So far, it has caused illness in hundreds of people. Among those with the illness, the severity has varied from simple “cold symptoms” all the way up to death. The fraction of those with a severe infection is a small portion of the total number infected with coronavirus, based on initial data.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Novel Coronavirus in China alert and the routinely updated situation summary are the best sources for up-to-date information. The Chicago Public Health Department has also posted a coronavirus information page.

How can a person protect themselves from the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19)?

There are several measures which reduce the likelihood of getting or spreading the virus:

  • Regularly wash your hands and use alcohol-based hand sanitizers
  • Cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze
  • Do not share food or drinks
  • Avoid close contact with people who have fever, coughing, sneezing or difficulty breathing
  • Keep yourself away from others if you have fever, coughing, sneezing or difficulty breathing

What are the symptoms of the 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19)?

When a person has the virus, they may have a fever (above 100.4° F or 38° C), cough and difficulty breathing. These symptoms overlap with several other common illnesses, including influenza.

If you are experiencing these symptoms, your health care provider will ask about recent travel or possible exposure to other people who are known to have the 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19). At-risk individuals may undergo a physical examination, lab testing or additional consultation with experts, if needed.

How is the 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19) spread?

The virus originated in an animal species, although at this time, it is unclear which animals may have been the original source. The outbreak may have begun when a human made contact with an animal infected by the virus. From there, the virus began spreading among humans, mainly by exposure to coughing, sneezing or close physical contact. World travel has amplified the spread from the original area.

How is the 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19) treated?

There is no specific remedy or cure for this infection. People with the infection are treated with commonly available medications. The most seriously ill people require treatment at a hospital. Several agents show promise for potential specific therapy in the near future.

Is there a vaccine for the 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19)?

Not yet, but one may become available over the next few months.


How widespread is the 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19)?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are tracking the spread of the disease. You can read more about on this Coronavirus Situation Summary, which includes a map.

Are there safety concerns for Northwestern University?

Currently, there is no unique risk identified for the Northwestern community. No person at Northwestern University has been diagnosed with the illness.

Campus partners, including Northwestern University Student Health Service, Counseling and Psychological Services, the Office of the Provost, human resources, and local and state public health entities are working together within the CDC framework to monitor and adjust to the evolving outbreak.

How is Northwestern protecting the NU community?

Northwestern University Student Health Service and several other campus partners are following the CDC guidelines on screening and response protocols. Targeted outreach is already underway, and ongoing informational measures will be issued as the outbreak unfolds. The University also has increased the cleaning of high-traffic areas around campus (dining facilities, the Norris University Center, etc.)

Northwestern has a pandemic plan and is refining details for the current situation.


My unit or department is hosting visitors soon from areas that have experienced an outbreak of COVID-19. How do I make them feel welcome, but also acknowledge health concerns from community members who will interact with our guests?

It’s important that our visitors do not feel stigmatized by this issue. It is likely our guests are already taking precautions such as wearing a face mask, something very common in Asia, but that can cause alarm to some in the U.S. If you have an on-going relationship with individuals visiting and feel comfortable expressing concern or compassion regarding events in their home country, you should feel free to do so.

The University is not screening campus visitors, but you can help inform members of our community about the possibility of these types of culturally distinct precautions. Encourage all involved, both hosts and guests, to visit the CDC website about 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19) for the latest and most reliable information available.

Individuals who have been in an area where the 2019 coronavirus has been a public health challenge within the past two weeks, or who came into close contact with a person being tested for the 2019 coronavirus within the last two weeks, can assess themselves by doing the following:

  • Check for any symptoms of infection, such as fever, cough or difficulty breathing
  • Measure body temperature twice daily for the two-week period following your travel to watch for a temperature over 100.4° F or 38°

Guests who have symptoms or a temperature over 100.4° F or 38° C should see a medical professional before traveling or visiting.

Campus partners, including the Office of the Provost, the Office of Human Resources, and local and state public health entities are working together within the CDC framework to monitor and adjust to the evolving outbreak. The CDC is closely monitoring the situation in the United States, conducting enhanced entry screening at the airports where travelers from affected areas arrive, and enhancing illness response capacity at several ports of entry where CDC medical screening stations are located.

(See also “What do I do if I am concerned that someone on campus might already be affected by the virus because of recent travel to China?”)

What should I do if I think I may have COVID-19?


Coronavirus (COVID-19) and flu symptoms can be similar. At this time, the 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19) is primarily related to the outbreak in China. Even if you have traveled to these areas, or have contact with someone who has, it is possible that your fever, cough or body aches might still be the flu.

  • Students who have flu-like symptoms and are worried about coronavirus (COVID-19) should call Northwestern University Student Health Service at 847-491-8100.
  • Faculty, staff or other community members who have flu symptoms and are worried about coronavirus should contact their health care provider or pursue care at an urgent care center.


I am returning soon to the U.S. from travel to China. What can I expect at the airport given recent travel restrictions?

As of February 2, returning travelers from China will experience rearrangement of their flights due to newly enacted enhanced screening processes. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is directing all flights from China and all passengers who have traveled to China within the last 14 days to be routed through one of the eleven U.S. airports, which has established enhanced screening measures and developed quarantine facilities. (See Press Release.)

  • Foreign nationals (other than immediate family of U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and flight crew) who have traveled in China within 14 days of their arrival, will be denied entry into the United States.
  • U.S. citizens, U.S. permanent residents, and their immediate family whose travel included Hubei province within 14 days of their return will be subject to up to 14 days of mandatory quarantine.
  • U.S. Citizens, U.S permanent residents, and their immediate family who have traveled in other areas of China within 14 days of their return will undergo a proactive entry health screening and be asked to commit to 14 days of self-quarantine with health monitoring to ensure they have not contracted the virus and do not pose a public health risk.

Undergraduates who have been impacted by the above restrictions should contact their academic adviser to discuss options. Graduate students should contact their faculty supervisor or department chair. Employees should contact their direct supervisor or the Office of Human Resources. Also, the Office of International Student and Scholar Services (OISS) can provide additional support to non-U.S. citizens, U.S. permanent residents and their immediate families. Refer to OISS’s contact information.

I returned from China recently, before the new travel restrictions were implemented. What do I do?

Regardless of your purpose for traveling in China, such as business, leisure, research, teaching, humanitarian work, etc., you should watch for any changes in your health for 14 days after your return.

If you get a fever or develop a cough or difficulty breathing during this 14-day period, avoid contact with others and seek medical attention:

  • Northwestern students can contact the Northwestern University Student Health Service at 847-491-8100
  • Non-students/Employees should contact their primary care physician (or a local urgent care center) for advice

Given that it’s already cold and flu season in the U.S., it’s also important in general to practice good hygiene:

  • Wash your hands frequently or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer;
  • Cover any cough or sneeze;
  • Do not share food or drink;
  • Stay home and rest if you feel ill; and
  • Wear a face mask, if available, when people are nearby, and you have symptoms such as a cough or sneezing.

The most important thing is not to panic, but rather to be aware of any symptoms that should prompt you to seek medical care.

I was planning to travel to China or South Korea, in the next few weeks, what do you advise?

The CDC raised the Travel Health Notice to a Warning Level 3: Avoid Non-essential Travel for China and South Korea. As a result, all university-sponsored student travel to China and South Korea, graduate and undergraduate, is prohibited until further notice. 


I really need to go to China or South Korea soon, what do you advise?

Northwestern does not recommend travel to China or South Korea at this time.

If travel to China or South Korea is essential, review the CDC's COVID information page and the routinely updated situation summary to double-check that your destination isn't under quarantine. You may find it difficult, or nearly impossible to fly to your desired destination. You may also face the possibility of travel disruptions, quarantine or refused re-entry to the U.S. based on citizenship status.

If you are traveling for personal reasons, follow the CDC's travel advice for China or South Korea:

  • Consult with a doctor prior to travel if you have any health-related concerns
  • Avoid traveling while sick (traveling with a fever from an unrelated condition could result in increased screenings and other travel issues)
  • Expect additional screenings at airports and transit hubs - allow for extra travel time
  • Avoid close contact with people suffering from acute respiratory infections
  • Practice good hygiene through frequent handwashing, especially after direct contact with ill people or their environments
  • Prevent close contact with live or dead farm or wild animals
  • Enroll for international travel medical insurance with GeoBlue (available only for University-sponsored travel; personal travel is not eligible under the Northwestern plan)

Faculty or staff traveling to China for essential, University-related purposes should notify the Office of Global Safety and Security (OGSS) of their travel plans well in advance of departure, and should first secure approval from their Dean or Vice President.

Regardless of destination, Northwestern policy requires all undergraduate and graduate student travelers to register their travel with OGSS and to obtain international health insurance from GeoBlue. For more information on travel registration, refer to the Undergraduate Student Travel Policies or the Graduate Student Travel Policies. 

While OGSS does not regulate the travel of faculty or staff, employees accompanying student groups abroad are required to participate in Trip Leader Training. Faculty and staff also are strongly encouraged to disclose their travel to OGSS (regardless of the destination) and to register for GeoBlue for Employees.


I was planning travel to China or South Korea during spring break or summer, what do you advise?

Due to the CDC Warning Level 3 (Avoid Non-essential Travel) for China and South Korea, all University-sponsored student travel to China and South Korea, graduate and undergraduate, is prohibited until further notice. University-sponsored spring break travel to China have been re-directed to other destinations; no trips were schedule for South Korea. University-sponsored summer travel to China and South Korea, including undergraduate study abroad programs, remains on schedule at this time. 

While Northwestern does not have authority over the personal and leisure travel of students, faculty, or staff, it is strongly recommended that the community consider the implications of travel to China or South Korea at this time, regardless of the purpose.

What should I do if I am concerned that someone on campus might already be affected by the virus because of recent travel to a location experiencing an outbreak of COVID-19?

Please be aware that international travel alone does not necessarily increase a person's risk for contracting the virus. It is important to stay calm and remember that it is normal for people to cough or be sick, especially at this time of the year. As noted above, the primary concerns are related to individuals who have recently traveled to the impacted areas of China, or who have been in direct contact with those currently under evaluation for the virus, and who are showing symptoms. Individuals who have recently traveled to areas impacted by COVID-19, but show no symptoms, do not pose a risk to other members of the community and should not be presumed to be sick.

Northwestern is relying on - and has confidence in - public health officials at airports and other ports of entry who screen travelers arriving from at-risk areas. Students, faculty or staff who clear that process are expected to return to campus as scheduled. Absent a compelling reason to believe that a member of the Northwestern community has been exposed to the virus, there should be no cause for elevated concern, nor any reason to take additional protective measures beyond those recommended by the CDC and public health officials.

Individuals advised to self-quarantine by a public health official following a re-entry screening, should notify the appropriate university officials. Undergraduates should contact their academic adviser to discuss options. Graduate students should contact their faculty supervisor or department chair.

Employees further concerned about a symptomatic colleague or have additional questions should contact their direct supervisor or the Office of Human Resources at

The Northwestern community includes many members from China or who have family in China. It's a very concerning time for anyone with loved ones there or connections to the country. We strongly urge you to act with compassion towards our Chinese students, faculty, staff, and visitors, and to encourage others to do the same. Northwestern prohibits discrimination on the basis of national origin, race and citizenship status as described in our Policy on Discrimination and Harassment. Any member of the Northwestern community who experiences discrimination or harassment is strongly encouraged to contact the Office of Equity at 847-491-6697 or at

Last revised: 2/28/2020