Coronavirus: 1990 measles outbreak all over again?

Matthew Bailey

Nearly 7,000 miles away, a coronavirus outbreak has caused panic throughout China, which has seen 80 deaths and nearly 3,000 suspected cases as of Jan. 26. 

With the fifth and latest coronavirus case in the United States discovered in Arizona’s Maricopa County, the virus is seemingly creeping closer to Colorado and, by extension, the Fort Collins community, which will soon celebrate the 30th anniversary of another viral outbreak. 

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Squeezed into the confines of page five ad space in the April 27, 1990, issue of The Collegian was a brief about a small measles outbreak at Colorado State University. 

The article explained there were 15 confirmed cases of measles at CSU and that an immunization clinic would be set up at the health center to distribute vaccinations that cost $28 per dose. Vaccinations were also available for mumps and rubella. 

Situated above a political cartoon of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush and the Iran-Contra affair, next to a box that marked the 1,784th day Thomas Sutherland was held hostage in Beirut, was an opinion piece about measles vaccines. 

The opinion piece, which expressed the importance of getting vaccinated, stated that out of 70 recent measles cases documented in Colorado immediately prior to the issue, 20 of those cases occurred in Larimer County, and two of those cases complicated into pneumonia. 

“Yeah, measles might not be a big deal to you, but what about for the people you contact while you were supposed to be quarantined or while you were sick and contagious?” the article read. “Get your vaccine. Please — for yourself and everyone you love.”

But it seems as though people still did not heed The Collegians warnings. 

It was reported in the May 1, 1990, issue that the same measles outbreak would alter graduation plans. 

Instead of holding 10 individual indoor graduation ceremonies, CSU decided to amalgamate the ceremonies into a single mass ceremony at Hughes Stadium. 

The University’s decision came after Larimer County Health Department officials notified the University of the possibility of contagion at indoor ceremonies. 

With this, the decision was made that holding ceremonies indoors as opposed to one mass ceremony outdoors would increase the risk of the spread of measles. 

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According to the article, the measles virus can remain in a room for two hours after an infected person has left that room. A primary fear was that the outbreak would spread through family members and friends of graduating students, but these predicaments would be unlikely in an outdoor setting.

This alteration changed ceremonial plans. For instance, instead of 10 commencement speeches, there was only one speech. 

Despite an apology from the University, the decision to alter the spring 1990 graduation ceremony was met with backlash and pressure from students to reverse the decision, which did happen a mere day after the May 1 article and after more than 100 upset students barged into the North Ballroom of the Lory Student Center during a commencement committee discussion in protest. 

In the May 3, 1990, issue of The Collegian, then-interim University President Judson Harper announced there would be two separate graduation ceremonies instead of just one, putting the measles-fueled graduation ceremony backlash to rest. 

So, as China’s coronavirus outbreak invades the United States, at least there aren’t any graduation alterations because of it … yet.

Matt Bailey can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @MattBailey760.