The Coronavirus Outbreak

By David Montgomery and Manny Fernandez

A group of about 70 students from the University of Texas at Austin celebrated spring break in Mexico, then returned to find that dozens had tested positive.

College students crowded the beaches of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on March 11. Some students who traveled to spring break destinations are now testing positive for the coronavirus.
College students crowded the beaches of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on March 11. Some students who traveled to spring break destinations are now testing positive for the coronavirus.Credit...Saul Martinez for The New York Times

By David Montgomery and

AUSTIN, Texas — Two weeks ago, amid the coronavirus pandemic, about 70 students from the University of Texas at Austin partied in Mexico on spring break. The students, all in their 20s, flew on a chartered plane to Cabo San Lucas, and some returned on separate commercial flights to Texas.

Now, 44 of them have tested positive for the virus and are self-isolating. More students were monitored and tested on Wednesday, university officials said, after 28 initial positive tests.

The Austin outbreak is the latest to result from a group of college students who ignored social-distancing guidelines, went on traditional spring break trips and have now tested positive for the coronavirus. Many of them appeared to be under the mistaken impression that young people are not as likely to get the coronavirus as older people are. Students at the University of Tampa, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and other colleges have tested positive after returning from spring break trips to Florida, Alabama, Tennessee and elsewhere.

The defiant attitude, at a time when millions of Americans were hunkered down at home and staying away from school, work and relatives, was embodied by Brady Sluder, a young man on spring break in Miami who declared from a packed beach: “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.” Mr. Sluder, whose television interview was shared widely, later apologized on Instagram.

In Austin, health officials with the city government and the university have contacted every young person who was on the chartered plane, using flight manifests shared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the authorities said. City health officials used the case to urge residents of all ages to stay home and to avoid nonessential travel. At least four of the 44 students who tested positive had not shown any symptoms of the coronavirus.

“The virus often hides in the healthy and is given to those who are at grave risk of being hospitalized or dying,” Dr. Mark E. Escott, the interim medical director and health authority for the city of Austin and Travis County, said in a statement. “While younger people have less risk for complications, they are not immune from severe illness and death from Covid-19,” the disease caused by the coronavirus.

U.T. Austin canceled classes on March 13 and resumed instruction online on Monday.

“The incident is a very strong reminder of the importance of taking seriously the warnings of public health authorities on the risks of Covid-19,” said J.B. Bird, director of media relations at the university.

The state’s flagship university has been hit hard by the virus. Its president, Gregory L. Fenves, announced last month that his wife had tested positive, and that his family was self-isolating. Mr. Fenves’s wife, Carmel, began exhibiting flulike symptoms after the couple traveled to New York City for events with alumni and students. Mr. Fenves’s tests later came back negative.

The group of roughly 70 students departed from the Austin airport on March 14 and many of them returned on March 19. The trip was organized by a company called JusCollege, which bills itself as a “one-stop shop” for spring break and college-oriented trips.

“I’m not going to judge those students’ decision,” said Camron I. Goodman, 24, the university’s student government president. “A lot of students had to make some tough decisions about their spring break plans.”

On Wednesday, JusCollege’s website still included an event listing for “Cabo Spring Break 2020” from Feb. 23 to April 10. “Join us as we take over Cabo San Lucas for Spring Break 2020!” the listing reads. “Place your deposit to lock in best pricing.”

The Austin television station KVUE posted emails that the company sent to students in the days before the trip, assuring them that spring break was still on and was still safe.

One of the emails, sent by the company on March 3, read, “We believe that our travel destinations remain among the safest and most enjoyable places in the world to visit right now.” In another, sent on March 12, the company wrote that “we’re currently in our 2nd week of Cabo and have had almost 5,000 travelers, all with no issues.”

A statement later posted on JusCollege’s website told travelers that the remaining spring break trips were being postponed until a later date in 2020. “We are committed to building solutions that connect people and provide safety and security for our community while sustaining our love of adventure,” the company’s statement read.

David Montgomery reported from Austin, and Manny Fernandez from Houston.

  • Updated March 24, 2020

    • It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.

    • Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.

    • If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.

    • Experts are divided on how much protection a regular surgical mask, or even a scarf, can provide for people who aren’t yet sick. The W.H.O. and C.D.C. say that unless you’re already sick, or caring for someone who is, wearing a face mask isn’t necessary. And stockpiling high-grade N95 masks will make it harder for nurses and other workers to access the resources they need. But researchers are also finding that there are more cases of asymptomatic transmission than were known early on in the pandemic. And a few experts say that masks could offer some protection in crowded places where it is not possible to stay 6 feet away from other people. Masks don’t replace hand-washing and social distancing.

    • Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.

    • That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.