What steps should I take to ensure safety against coronavirus while not hurting people’s feelings?

Date: February 2020


Dear Deans,

I had the following question for the Ask a Dean column (the situation has really happened in my office and might be relevant for others also – so far I have just been avoiding the office).

I am a non-Chinese Ph.D. candidate. A Chinese student who sits in my office has not been coming to work for the past few days. When I asked his Chinese friend about it, I got a brief response that he was “not well”. In view of the situation regarding the coronavirus, what are the steps I should take to ensure my own security as well as that of others while at the same time not hurting people’s feelings or appearing racist?

Thank you very much.


Health-conscious grad

Update (March 6, 2020): It is important to note that the CDC encourages that we communicate the facts that being of a certain ethnicity or citizenship “does not increase the chance of getting or spreading COVID-19.


Dear Health-conscious Grad,

Thank you so much for taking the time to write to the Graduate School deans with your question. It can be confusing to know what to do as the situation with coronavirus continues to evolve and be a public health concern. Most importantly, I want to assure you that the university is very engaged and monitoring the situation carefully as community safety is our first priority. I would encourage you to visit Cornell’s Health Update page to become more informed about the situation.

To address your question specifically, it is important to recognize that we are still in the midst of cold and flu season. CDC reports that influenza activity is, and will remain, high for the next several weeks. Cornell Health is actively monitoring clinical operations to ensure patients calling or coming to the health center are promptly assessed and treated for flu-like illnesses. Cornell Health also has evidence-based protocols to identify and test for COVID-19 and is available for calls or questions about coronavirus, flu, or any other concerns. If you know students that have flu-like symptoms, you can encourage them to contact Cornell Health at 607-255-5155 (24/7) to seek advice and care. 

With many community members feeling under the weather, it is critical that we each strive to lead with compassion and empathy and to avoid making assumptions based on someone’s perceived symptoms or identity. In addition, many members of our community—students, faculty, and staff—are concerned about the welfare of family and friends living in impacted regions. We encourage you to be supportive of each other and be mindful that diversity of our community is one of our greatest strengths. For community building and support resources, see the Feb. 7 message from the Presidential Advisors on Diversity and Equity and the Vice Provost for International Affairs.

In the meantime, there are things that you can do today. The CDC recommends preventative actions to reduce the risk of developing the flu or other illnesses, including:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • When you are sick, stay home.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
  • If you haven’t already been immunized against the flu, it is not too late to get a flu shot.

I hope that gives you ideas for what to do. If you find that you continue to be concerned about your safety and well-being, it may be helpful to have a conversation with a trained mental health professional, especially if you find this is impacting your ability to be academically successful or have meaningful relationships with others. Please know that Cornell Health is able to have these conversations; you can find out more information on the different types of support and how to get connected with them. If you need more support in making these connections, just let me know and I am happy to help facilitate.

All the best,

Janna Lamey
Assistant Dean for Graduate Student Life