AUSTIN, Texas — A number of University of Texas at Austin students tested positive for coronavirus after returning from a spring break trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, Austin Public Health announced Tuesday.
On Tuesday, 28 students had reportedly tested positive. By Wednesday, that number grew to 44. On Friday, the university confirmed at least 49 have now tested positive.
Those students traveled on a chartered flight from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on March 14 and returned March 19, according to an airport official. There were at least 70 students on the outbound flight, and most of them returned on the chartered flight.
But some returned on commercial flights, Austin Public Health said.
The spring break trip, which cost students around $2,000 each, was organized by a Nevada-based company called JusCollege.
On March 3, only 11 days before the trip, JusCollege sent students an email with the subject line that read in part: “Spring Break Is On!”
In the email, the company told students, “We believe that our travel destinations remain among the safest and most enjoyable places in the world to visit right now.”
Then, on March 12, two days before the scheduled departure and one day after the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a global pandemic, JusCollege emailed students again to alert them, “Our refund policy remains the same as when your purchase was made as we have already incurred significant costs related to the trip.”
JusCollege told students Mexico, at the time, had fewer cases than the U.S.
“We hope that you choose to enjoy your Spring Break with us – we’re currently in our second week of Cabo and have had almost 5,000 travelers, all with no issues,” the company wrote on March 12.
UT Austin sophomore Ross Fisher said he spent a whole year saving for the trip and worked a second job.
“It's the most expensive trip I’ve personally ever gone on,” Fisher said. “It would have been made [it] easier had they just simply offered to refund us and done the right thing.”
He said after spending that amount of money and being encouraged to go by the company, it was a difficult decision to make.
“Every single email they sent out seemed very defensive. And it was kind of like it came across as like, desperate, trying to get as many people to still go on the trip,” Fisher said.
He said he hasn’t been tested for COVID-19 since returning to Austin and isn’t experiencing any symptoms, but he plans to get tested.
KVUE intern Bailey Abramowitz made the decision to cancel the trip just a couple of days before departure.
“At the time, everything was still really up in the air,” Abramowitz said. “We had no idea how many cases there were or if travel was going to be cut off internationally. And I was really scared that if I went, I would get stuck in Mexico.”
She reached out to JusCollege to cancel the trip and get a refund but still hasn’t heard back.
“I know a lot of other people have emailed. None of us have gotten a response,” Abramowitz said.
On Thursday, the company sent an email to some student travelers, indicating it was working on "potential partial" refunds or credits, but would not tell students when those might be available.
The email also read that the company prides itself on "full transparency."
KVUE repeatedly reached out to JusCollege via phone, email and social media, but did not receive a response for weeks. On April 14, JusCollege sent the following statement:
“We take the safety of our customers very seriously and are working with public health authorities to assist where we can. JusCollege always follows US government regulations and guidance from the state department when making travel recommendations, and Mexico was not under a federal travel advisory at the time the trip departed. It was an unprecedented and rapidly evolving situation, and our communications to our customers were being updated in line with the changing US government guidelines. Our thoughts are with the students who are ill and the healthcare providers and public health officials who are working to mitigate the impact of COVID-19.”
As a distributor of travel services, we are working tirelessly with airlines and hotels to get the best possible outcome for our customers -- whether that’s a credit or partial refund. Refunds are made at the discretion of the hotels or airlines we work with, who are holding the vast majority of our customers’ funds. We apologize for the delays and will continue doing everything we can to help at this difficult time.”
Austin Public Health said it is working to trace back the direct contact all of the students had with others, while many of them recover at home.
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