Coronavirus fears send 3 students home from study abroad programs in Italy |

Coronavirus fears send 3 students home from study abroad programs in Italy

Three Steamboat Springs High School graduates planning to spend the rest of their second semester of college studying abroad in Italy were abruptly sent home due to fears about the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.
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Editor’s note: Steamboat Pilot & Today will publish a second story on how local agencies and businesses are preparing for the coronavirus on Tuesday, March 3.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Three Steamboat Springs High School graduates planning to spend the rest of their second semester of college studying abroad in Italy were abruptly sent home due to fears about the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

On the afternoon of Sunday, March 1, Mackenzie Ward was on a plane from Rome, Italy, to Newark, New Jersey.

Ellie Kavanaugh was at a hotel in Frankfurt, Germany, awaiting her Tuesday morning flight to Denver.

And Zoe Walsh was at her family’s home in Steamboat after arriving in town on Saturday evening.

As of 4:30 p.m. Monday, March 2, Italy had the most coronavirus cases of any country outside of Asia. The death toll rose to 52, with 1,835 confirmed cases.

All three young women said they weren’t afraid of getting sick — their biggest fear was getting stuck in Italy, or anywhere, and not being allowed to leave.

But all three had also fallen in love with the country, were having phenomenal experiences and were heartbroken to leave.

Kavanaugh and Walsh were studying in Florence, while Ward was much closer to the concentration of coronavirus cases in the northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia.

The town wasn’t on lockdown, said Ward’s mother Boatie Ward on Monday from Steamboat as she awaited her daughter’s arrival. But it was part of the region that prompted a Level 4 travel warning from the U.S. government that stated, “Do Not Travel to: Lombardy and Veneto due to the level of community transmission of the virus and imposition of local quarantine procedures.”

Mackenzie Ward, 21, is a junior at Colorado State University.

At the beginning of last week, her classes were cancelled, and by the end of the week, she was told she had to go home.

Boatie started making travel arrangements immediately and booked her daughter on a flight out of Milan on Monday.

As Mackenzie waited at the train station Sunday, she found out her flight had been cancelled. Her mother then booked her on a flight from Rome.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen when she lands in Newark,” Boatie said.

She didn’t know if her daughter would be stopped there — if she would be quarantined.

“Nobody can tell us what is going to happen,” she said.

Boatie said her daughter has no symptoms but said her hands were dried out and wrinkled from using so much hand sanitizer.

“I probably know a lot more about coronavirus than I should,” Boatie said, admitting it’s been a difficult couple of days.

She’s had to force herself away from constantly reading news updates on her computer.

“When your child is thousands of miles away and you don’t have any control, it’s hard,” she said.

She wants her daughter home but said she’s also sad that Mackenzie’s wonderful experience “came to a screeching, abrupt halt.”

Mackenzie has a flight scheduled from Newark to Denver on Tuesday morning, and it is Boatie’s hope that she will be going to pick her up.

Boatie, her sister and her niece had plans to go visit Mackenzie in Italy on Thursday. They cancelled their reservations, and some airlines have cancelled all flights to Milan.

Meanwhile, Mackenzie’s close friend Ellie Kavanaugh was waiting at a hotel in Frankfurt, Germany. She left Florence on Monday morning.

Kavanaugh is a junior at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

When Kavanaugh got the news she had to go home, she was with a group of friends in Spain. Several of the girls didn’t go back to Florence out of the fear they wouldn’t get back out.

Kavanaugh felt safe, had her mother’s support and wanted to return.

“I fell in love with the city,” Kavanaugh said. “I wanted to see it one more time.”

She helped pack the belongings of the friends who flew directly to the U.S. from Spain. She then missed her connection in Frankfurt, after the plane made an unplanned landing “somewhere in the middle of Germany.” It was unrelated to the coronavirus — apparently Frankfurt was having issues with kids flying drones in the airspace, she said.

Waiting by herself in Frankfurt after three long travel days and not much sleep, Kavanaugh had a surprisingly positive outlook. On one hand, she was devastated.

“I absolutely fell in love with Florence from the first day,” Kavanaugh said. “I didn’t want leave. I loved the program. I loved the people in Italy.”

She doesn’t know what will happen when she lands in Denver on Tuesday afternoon. When she flew from Spain to Italy, she was screened for a fever upon landing. The same thing happened about three weeks ago, when she returned to Florence from Berlin. She described standing in line while people in hazmat suits pointed thermometers at their foreheads. It wasn’t a big deal, she said. 

She’s looking forward to giving her mom — and Mackenzie — a big hug when she gets home.

“I have to make the best of it,” she added.

Walsh, a sophomore at Pepperdine University, was spending the entire school year in Florence. She’d been there since September.

Life in Italy had simply become life for Walsh, and she loved it. She had about 24 hours notice she’d have to leave.

Walsh also understands her university needed to err on the side of caution. Walsh was healthy, but when she arrived in Washington D.C., nobody asked her any questions or checked her temperature. When she arrived in Denver, nobody checked her temperature.

She was advised to “self-impose” with a two-week quarantine at home.

She’s exhausted, and plans to be a homebody for a couple weeks, though she may do something like “go through the Starbucks drive thru.”

Walsh’s parents were supposed to visit her Sunday. It was going to be their first trip to Europe, and they’d both been working incredibly hard to take the time off.

Kavanaugh and Walsh will finish their semesters abroad through online courses from their family’s homes in Steamboat. They don’t have places to live on their respective campuses, and Walsh said Pepperdine won’t even permit her to visit until March 16.

Kavanaugh said it isn’t exactly the same to take watercolor classes or art history or analyze a global city from her living room in Colorado. She planned to study abroad from the beginning of her freshman year and saved up all her elective credits to take in Italy.

Kavanaugh is also heartbroken for the economic impact on the country she now loves. In Florence alone, she said, there are about 10,000 students studying abroad. And most of them vacated within a week.

“It’s incredibly emotional and so sudden,” Walsh said. “It’s really heartbreaking.”

Walsh said she’s still processing everything that took place over the past few days. She had a lot of plans for the remainder of her time in Italy.

“It feels like the future I had so clearly envisioned was just ripped away so suddenly,” Walsh said.

But she gets it. And she’s glad to be safe at home. Still, she desperately misses the city she called home for six months.

“I loved it,” Walsh said. “It’s absolutely wonderful and beautiful in so many ways — living in the same place with so many monuments of human creation and creative talent. As someone who loves history, I loved being able to walk among the history I was learning about.”

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.

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