UF Journalism Students, Professors May Have Been Exposed To COVID-19 At Conference

Mar 13, 2020

Several University of Florida faculty and students were potentially exposed to the coronavirus at a New Orleans journalism conference, including a student from Jacksonville. 

Mindy McAdams, a professor of journalism at UF, said she and another professor —  along with 10 students — went to the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting conference at the New Orleans Marriott last week. 

McAdams said the group also met with two people from UF’s Bob Graham Center while there. 

The group returned on Sunday and didn’t receive information until late Tuesday afternoon that someone who attended the conference tested positive for COVID-19. 

She estimates more than a thousand people attended the conference.

“I didn’t go to campus on Monday, and Tuesday is the day when I teach four hours in classrooms,” McAdams said. “So I was there pretty much all day Tuesday.” 

McAdams is now self-quarantining for the next two weeks, as recommended by the Florida Department of Health. She said she has all the supplies she needs to stay in her home. 

“I have to cancel some travel, some flights and hotels,” McAdams said. “Other than that, and a lot of communication with my students, it’s really not a big burden to me. And I’m grateful I’m not sick, because I feel just fine.” 

Brendan Farrell, from Jacksonville, is a student who attended the conference. He said he felt ill after returning and went to the UF infirmary, where he was told a coronavirus test wasn’t necessary.

“It's still a little scary when you’re sick, and then all of a sudden, there’s a case of the coronavirus at the conference you attended,” Farrell said.

Farrell said he was initially frustrated with how the university handled the situation. 

“We haven’t been told to self-isolate or self-quarantine,” Farrell said Thursday morning. “Some of us have decided to. I went to the infirmary yesterday, and he said, you know, ‘Just do it for a couple days.’ And I was the only one that was feeling sick out of the group.” 

Then, on Thursday afternoon, Farrell and other students got an email from UF College of Journalism and Communications Dean Diane McFarlin.

“You have my wholehearted apologies,” McFarlin wrote in the email. “The coronavirus triage is uncharted territory for all of us, and it has been all-consuming over the last few days. In your case, I understood that you were receiving the guidance you needed from faculty, and I was relieved to know that you were not exhibiting illness. To confirm: You are advised to self-quarantine for two weeks – thank you for being proactive about that – until you are certain that the coronavirus was not transmitted to you at NICAR. This means you should not circulate among others and pose the risk of exposing them.” 

All 12 Florida State Universities were told by the state to send their students home until the end of March. Farrell said once he’s completed his two days of self-quarantining, he’s heading back home to Jacksonville until it’s clear to go back to school.

“I just want to take the right steps,” Farrell said. “I don’t want to do something dumb that will endanger anybody, especially people whose immune system is pretty vulnerable. I’m just concerned that I haven’t gotten enough clear instructions as to what I should be doing.” 

There were two confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Alachua County as of Friday afternoon on 3/13/20. 

Sky Lebron can be reached at slebron@wjct.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron