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After First Confirmed Novel Coronavirus Case In Mass., Some Bostonians Worry About Risk

A woman wears a mask as she walks along on a busy Boston sidewalk. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A woman wears a mask as she walks along on a busy Boston sidewalk. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Bostonians are having a range of reactions to the first confirmed case of the Wuhan coronavirus in Massachusetts. The sick person has been identified as a man in his 20s who is a student at UMass Boston.

Since university administrators notified students and staff Saturday, campus life has mostly continued as usual, said UMass Boston student Tahra Scorzailoas. However, because the outbreak originated China, Scorzailoas said she has heard some of her peers make “xenophobic” comments about people of Asian decent.

“We have a group chat for my floor,” Scorzailo said as she walked into a dormitory on Sunday. “And this kid said, ‘We should send the foreigners back.’ And I was just like, ‘Really? You’re being ridiculous.’ ”

The announcement of a sickened student also spurred concern among some members of UMass Boston’s Chinese Student Scholar Association.

“Our group was trying to comfort people down, tell them not to panic,” said freshman Kate Chen, who said she is originally from Shenzhen, China. “But there are people trying to ask, ‘Where has that person gone to?’ because they don’t want to be affected.”

Health officials said the patient is in stable condition and recovering at home. He reportedly spent only limited time on campus and had contact with just a few people.

“The risk to the general population is extremely low,” said Dr. Jennifer Lo, medical director of the Boston Public Health Commission. “The patient spent very little time on campus or outside his home, so the patient is doing his part to limit the spread of the virus.”

In Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood Sunday morning, the scene at the annual Lunar New Year parade was a familiar one — firecrackers popping, drums banging, and lion dancers strutting down the street. But a few people scattered among the crowd of onlookers wore surgical masks over their faces.

“If you can do this small thing for your own health, then why not?” said Dora Perjesi, who recently moved to Boston from Hungary. She said she put on the mask as a precaution.

“You don’t know the people who are attending this parade. If they are living here or they returned recently from a city in China,” she said.

Perjesi was not alone. On the subway downtown and on the UMass campus, some Chinese and non-Chinese residents alike could be seen wearing face masks.

“Everyone wants to be safe, everyone wants to protect themselves and their families,” said City Councilor Michelle Wu, who attended the Chinatown parade. “But in an instance like this, we have to be very careful not to let this spill over into assumptions about an entire race of people or people who look a certain way.”

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh echoed that sentiment.

“This is a virus that could be happening anywhere in the world,” he told a group of reporters gathered at the parade. “I think it’s important for us to rally around each other, not be divided.”

Health officials emphasized that the chance of catching the flu in Massachusetts is much higher than the risk of contracting the coronavirus, and the steps to reduce the risk of both are the same: avoid close contact with people who are sick, stay home if you are sick, and cover coughs or sneezes with your arm. Health experts also recommend washing your hands frequently.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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