Hyde Park student returning to U.S. from Italy amid COVID-19 outbreak

Posted at 11:25 PM, Mar 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-03 10:48:10-05

Studying abroad in Italy, foreign exchange student Caroline Bristow of Hyde Park says she sees mostly empty streets in Florence as coronavirus fears grow across the country.

“It’s a little eerie,” Bristow told WCPO in a Skype interview Monday. “The other night we were walking home at 10 after dinner. I didn’t see one other person.”

Bristow, a junior studying advertising in Florence through the University of South Carolina, had dreamed of studying in a foreign country for years.

"I had a list. I had a bucket list of places I was checking off," she said.

But now, with nearly 1,700 confirmed cases and 35 virus-related deaths in Italy so far, the country is taking protective measures to fight the spread of COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by the most recently discovered coronavirus.

Bristow has been in Italy for one month and was supposed to study there until May 15. As of Monday, Bristow's program has been suspended, and the majority of the students she knows have already gone back home.

“A lot of people left a week ago. I went to my classes on Thursday and there was five out of 30 people in my class remaining,” she said.

Bristow said her university doesn’t provide transportation back to the U.S. and also warns it can’t help if students leave and get quarantined.

“Basically, we’re on our own if we choose to stay, and that’s when we decided that the best decision was to probably leave sooner rather than later,” she said.

Sergey Grinshpun, director of University of Cincinnati’s Center for Health-Related Aerosol Studies, calls the outbreak in Northern Italy "very unusual."

"It affects a very small area with a big number of people, similarly to the outbreak in Wuhan, China, as well as in Korea," Grinshpun said.

Despite the spread of coronavirus in other parts of the world, Grinshpun says Tri-State residents shouldn't panic or stockpile surgical masks.

"Stay at home probably and follow very simple, very straightforward hygiene practices would be the best advice," he said.

Grinshpun, who has tested the performance of respiratory protective devices against biological agents for nearly three decades, recommends people use surgical masks only if they are already sick, as masks “do not provide any reasonable protection for the wearer.”

“They look the same and people sometimes perceive them as the same device, but they’re very different,” Grinshpun explained. “Surgical masks were designed not to protect the wearer from particles around him or her, but to protect others from droplets and spit that this wearer may generate.”

At the time of this report, six Americans have died from coronavirus, all in Washington state, and there have been 101 confirmed cases in the U.S. so far.

For comparison, influenza infected over 35 million people, hospitalized 490,000 and killed over 34,000 in the U.S. over the 2018-19 season, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Over 88,000 people have been sickened by coronavirus worldwide, and 3,040 have died, according to the WHO’s March 2 situation report. The majority of confirmed cases and virus-related deaths come from China.

There have been no confirmed cases in Ohio, Kentucky or Indiana at the time of this report. The Ohio Department of Health confirms that 212 people in Ohio have returned to the U.S. after having been in China in the past two weeks, and none have met the criteria to be tested for COVID-19.

“One may remember during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the infectivity of Ebola is much greater than what we know about this coronavirus and finally the world came back to a normal function, mechanism. So, I hope it will be the same here,” Grinshpun said.

Bristow does not think she will be under any kind of quarantine when she arrives back in Cincinnati, however that may change. For now, Bristow is both relieved and disappointed to be heading back to the U.S. on a flight scheduled to leave Rome on Tuesday.

“I had plane tickets booked, hotel rooms booked, that now we have to go back and figure out if we can get them, but it’s overwhelming and disappointing," she said.

Coronavirus/COVID-19 resources

  • To prevent the spead of COVID-19 or coronavirus, health officials recommend frequently washing your hands, using hand sanitizer and avoiding close contact with people who are infected. Find the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's full list of tips here.
  • If you believe you have contracted coronavirus, contact your healthcare provider or click here for more information.
  • For more information on coronavirus in Ohio, visit; in Kentucky, click here; in Indiana, click here.