The University of Missouri is planning for possible use of a residence hall as a coronavirus isolation facility if the pandemic illness requires additional space to be kept under control.


No final decision and no construction work to prepare has been done, sources said.


Contacted Saturday, MU spokesman Christian Basi said he could not confirm nor disclose details of contingency plans, citing safety concerns.


"As part of our emergency plan we have been reviewing the various resources we have on campus that could be used should this pandemic get much worse or have a significant impact on the Columbia community," Basi said.


So far, no student or employee of the university has tested positive for COVID-19 and there are only four likely or confirmed cases in Missouri, none in Columbia.


The UM System is converting coursework to online instruction at all four campuses starting Monday and will continue with that program at least until the end of the spring term.


"It is a challenging time for all academic leaders and we had to balance the health of our students, faculty and staff and we are taking this action out of an abundance of caution," UM System President Mun Choi said in an interview Friday evening. "This is not a decision we took lightly. Moving all of our classes to e-learning is going to be a big challenge."


The university is committed to maintaining quality, Choi said.


The decision came in the face of the worldwide pandemic illness that has made 153,000 people ill and killed almost 5,800. In the U.S., the number of cases grew to 2,571 on Saturday afternoon, an increase of almost 400 in 24 hours. The U.S. has recorded 51 deaths as of Saturday afternoon.


The last time the University of Missouri stopped holding classes due to a worldwide pandemic was on Oct. 7, 1918, when the flu epidemic had stricken 70 students. The campus was closed and put under quarantine, with pickets posted to keep out visitors.


An attempt to reopen the campus on Oct. 28, 1918, reignited the epidemic and by late November, when schools, churches and theaters in Columbia closed for a second time, the university decided to end classes and send students home until the next term began.


Halting in-person classwork is a way to help prevent the coronavirus from taking hold among students, Choi said.


Dormitories and dining halls will also remain open. Many students have already left campus since the announcement Wednesday that next week would be online.


The university has already seen a significant drop in the amount of food being served daily, Basi said.


Choi said the residence halls and dining areas must be kept open for students who cannot or do not wish to return home.


"We do expect that many of our students will be traveling back home but we are keeping the doors open because there may be students who do not have another place to go to," Choi said. "We have a number of international students, for example."


One important aspect of controlling the coronavirus named COVID-19 by the World Health Organization is to stay out of crowds and avoid personal contact such as shaking hands.


That is why most major sporting leagues, both professional and collegiate, have canceled competition, or are at least holding matches without spectators.


Ending in-person classes is a way to cut down on that type of contact, Choi said.


"We also will be able to instruct our students on social distancing," Choi said. "That is why we decided that canceling the in-classroom teaching was an effective means of reducing contact among a large group of individuals."


In a message to faculty, staff and students signed by Choi and the chancellors, the leadership of the university wrote it was "taking this action with an abundance of caution for the health of students, faculty, staff and visitors."


The campuses began transitioning to online work this week, beginning with the Columbia campus, which canceled classes on Thursday and Friday. The campus originally intended to conduct classes online next week, then return to normal operations on March 30 when students are set to return from spring break.


"There are many aspects of this plan that will continue to require ongoing extraordinary efforts from our university community, as well as our students and their families," Choi and the chancellors wrote. "Our universities will be communicating regularly as we work to ensure teaching, research and health care operations continue throughout the UM System."


The announcements Friday by President Donald Trump, who declared a national emergency, and Gov. Mike Parson, who declared a state emergency, prompted the change, the message stated.


"We recognize this is an unprecedented, challenging time," Choi said in a news release. "I’m extremely appreciative of the hard work of our four chancellors and their faculty and staff over the last several weeks."


Spring break for the four campuses is one week away.


COVID-19 emerged in China late last year and has since spread worldwide. The WHO declared it to be a pandemic earlier this week.


When Parson declared the state emergency, he said that the 94 people have been tested and that only four had been found to be "presumptive positive" the term being used for a test that has not been confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control. While Parson has revealed some details about the first two cases – one was a woman from St. Louis County who had returned from Italy and the other a person of unidentified sex in Greene County who had visited Austria – no other information except the positive result has been reported.


The number tested is believed to include MU faculty and students who attended the National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting conference in New Orleans. One attendee, not from MU, is known to have tested positive. Mark Horvit, an associate professor at the School of Journalism who had contact with the attendee, said he has been told his test was negative and that, if infected, he would be showing symptoms.


Horvit and the others who attended the conference have been in isolation since they learned of the possible contact.


Several other higher education institutions in the region had already announced plans to move coursework online, including Columbia and Stephens colleges in Columbia, Central Methodist University in Fayette, William Woods University and Westminster College in Fulton and Moberly Area Community College.


Parson, announcing his emergency declaration, said he would leave it to each institution and public school district to take the actions believed necessary to control the disease.


Columbia Public Schools, which also starts spring break on March 23, has said it intends to continue classes as usual.


Some states, including Illinois, have ordered schools to close.