Studying in times of pandemic, COVID-19

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My name is Mariano Molina, I am from Panama, and I am a scholar from SENACYT. Last year (2019), I started a master’s program in microbiology in the Netherlands, which allows me to do national or international internships. You can read more about me here.

In February 2020, I traveled to Italy and came back to the Netherlands. Now, I am in quarantine in the United States. I want to share my experience with the COVID-19 pandemic during my trips and how it has affected my student life.

The beginning of the outbreak, Italy – February 2020

Coronavirus

My plans to start my first internship in the United States were scheduled for March 2020. I couldn’t take courses, and I just have finished a literature thesis. Therefore, I had free time in February, so I took it for traveling. My destiny was Italy. I was in Rome, Turin, and Naples.

I remember having visited the Coliseum in Rome and have read the news about the beginning of the outbreak in north Italy. I thought in need of buying face masks because I saw Asian tourists wearing them in several places there, but for some reason, I did not. I was sure that I wanted to get out of Italy as soon as possible, I was aware of the situation in Wuhan, China, so I knew that it was very likely that the status in Italy could change drastically.

I didn’t go to north Italy, in the Lombardy region, where the outbreak started. However, I was planning to go to Milan, because I recently met a friend in the Netherlands who lives there. I sent her a text saying to take care of herself, that I forgot to visit her.

I also remember that inside the train from Rome to Naples, when I was coming back (the returning flight was from Naples – the Netherlands), I heard the notice about the cases in Lombardy and the symptoms of the disease.

Later on, when I finished the trip, I imagined all the situations where I exposed to the disease. The outbreak started in Lombardy, but anyone from there who was infected could’ve traveled to the cities where I was. I went to a football game from the Juventus team in Turin, in northwest Italy, on February 16 too. The perfect place for the dissemination of the virus. However, patient #1 of COVID-19 in Italy was detected on February 18 in Lombardy. When I read that news, I didn’t think about it again.

Until today, March 29, in Piedmont (Turin), there is 7,872 cases of COVID-19 and 617 deaths. In Latium (Rome), there is 2,505 cases and 124 deaths, while in Campania (Naples), there is 1,592 cases and 109 deaths. The pandemic hit strong in Italy, and I hope that Italians overcome this world health crisis soon. Sometimes I think, “I was there just a month ago in those cities, I could’ve been a case.”

Returning to the Netherlands and traveling to the United States – February 2020

Next, I came back to Nijmegen, the Netherlands. The flight was direct to Amsterdam, so I had to take a train for almost two hours to go to Nijmegen.

I never presented any symptoms, and I neither believed to have been exposed, so I kept contact with my friends without problems. As a farewell, I met with my friends because I was about to travel to the United States and start my internship. I must say that at any airport where I take off or landed in those days, I got recorded my body temperature. Until now, the Netherlands has 10,923 cases of COVID-19 and 772 deaths.

Internship at Shreveport, Louisiana, United States – March 2020

I traveled from the Netherlands to New Orleans with transit in Chicago. After a couple of days, I arrived at Shreveport. I started my internship in the lab of Dr. Bodily, Department of Microbiology, and Immunology at the LSU Health Sciences Center. I was excited because, in the first two weeks, I learned basic virology techniques. However, the pandemic was getting widespread in the United States, and the governor declared the state in quarantine. Today, Louisiana is one of the states with more cases of COVID-19, with 3,315 and 317 deaths.

Furthermore, I got anxious when I had to travel back to New Orleans on Saturday, March 15, by bus. I had an appointment with the immigration office on the next day, so I had to go. I also have a friend in New Orleans, but I never reached to her because it was risky meeting her during the outbreak. I remember being cleaning my hands regularly with my “hand wash kit” like Sheldon Cooper.

I came back to Shreveport without any problems. Back in town, my supervisor sent us an email (to his research group), where he informed us about the stopping of lab work. That is why I am now reading scientific articles for my internship report, doing another literature thesis, and participating in graduate classes from the LSU Health institute by Skype. So, I am distracted a bit.

How is it like being in quarantine and studying at the same time?

It is not easy. In the beginning, my supervisor sent us some scientific articles to read, but the situation got complicated for me. I didn’t have a routine anymore nor a way to keep me busy and feel productive. It is hard to be alone, without any family, nor social support, because I only had one month in the city, and I didn’t know anybody but my lab mates. I couldn’t focus, and I asked myself if everything would’ve been better if I had decided to go back to the Netherlands or Panama. Unfortunately, Panama cancelled all the flights to the country so I couldn’t go back. The virus spread quickly in Europe, so going back to the Netherlands wasn’t the best option either.

I decided to stand still, focus on my studies, homework, and wait. I talked about my feelings with my supervisor, and that’s why I got invited to participate in graduate classes. I had to take them through Skype, but at least I feel committed to doing something.

Here in Shreveport, not many people follow the rules of social distancing, so it is risky to go out. I can’t find alcohol gel or face masks in any store. Some food is out of stock. Yesterday I got lucky in finding rice, so I bought 10 pounds. I only get out of the apartment to take out the trash or for going to the grocery store, which I do once per week.

Radboud University, LSU Health Shreveport and SENACYT

I have to highlight how good the university, my internship-host institution, and my master’s sponsor, have managed the situation.

Radboud University suggested me in going back to the Netherlands initially because of traveling restrictions to Europe. They suspended face-to-face classes quickly, and they will continue with virtual lessons until June 2020. They kept in touch with me and even sent me an email addressed to my internship supervisor about the next steps and how I could replace the lab work.

LSU Health Shreveport, the institute where I am doing the internship, suspended classes, journal clubs, seminars, and non-essential work. The classes and meetings are done through Skype, and the microbiology department is helping in the detection of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Moreover, SENACYT contacted us through email (to the scholars) as well. First, they sent us a notice about the pandemic, and later on, they asked us about a report with our location and travel plans.

The future with COVID-19

Eventually, the pandemic will be controlled. I am only worried about an extension of the quarantine or more outbreaks of the virus. We don’t have a vaccine nor specific treatment. Therefore, a lot of scientists suggest that if the mitigation measures aren’t upheld, we will have more outbreaks. We hope the future is the one which tells us how this episode of our lives will conclude. Undoubtedly, humanity will begin a new chapter in history: post-pandemic of SARS-CoV-2.

I hope to continue my lab work during my research project. If everything goes well, I will go back to the Netherlands at the end of August 2020.

Remember: wash your hands and stay safe at home.

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