The incubation period for the illness is 14 days, and health authorities believe people can be infectious without displaying symptoms of the novel coronavirus.
Chinese enrolments made up about 40 per cent of the total number of international enrolments at Victorian universities last year, with 88,000 enrolments.
Craig Carracher, executive chairman of student accommodation provider Scape said about 60 per cent of the 4500 student beds it operates in Melbourne’s CBD are occupied by students from China.
The company moved to counter the health threat, launching a “crisis management response” last Thursday.
Scape is requiring all those arriving from China to go through medical examinations, and hygiene and cleaning services have been boosted in the buildings.
Mr Carracher expects about 2000 Chinese students to arrive at three Scape buildings in Melbourne’s CBD over the next two months.
He said only 10-15 per cent of the total number of Chinese students have returned to Melbourne from Chinese New Year celebrations.
“Melbourne is the most intense international student hub – it’s very centred around the CBD area … these buildings are controlled environments now [after the crisis management response].”
Chinese students who have returned to Melbourne, and those who plan to return imminently, are being sent messages on the popular Chinese communication platform WeChat to isolate themselves to protect against the potential spread of novel coronavirus.
Monash University cancelled exams scheduled for February 3 and asked students returning from China to limit their use of public areas.
Major international student services company AMET Education, which largely serves the Chinese student cohort, is sending the WeChat health warnings to students.
Angie Dong, who manages the company’s Melbourne branch, said the company was scrambling to determine how many students had returned to Melbourne from China in recent weeks.
“Some are still trapped, but we are trying to work out how many have returned and haven’t let us know,” she said.
“We’re trying to warn students that if you’ve just come back or you plan to come back soon, you should stay at home and isolate yourself for 14 days.
“For their sake and for others as well.”
Ying Zhang bought 30 masks to wear to classes at Melbourne University because she is afraid she will contract the illness.
While working in a Carlton restaurant and preparing to resume classes on March 2, she feels that the danger of being infected is rising as students return from holidays in China.
The masters student, from Jiangsu province, said she has had no advice from the university on preventive measures.
“But I think we should wash our hands and wear masks to at least prevent ourselves getting it,” she said.
Masters in Finance students Stan Dong, 23, from Beijing and his girlfriend Angela Hung, 24, said in their first lecture on Tuesday, 10 out of 60 students were wearing masks.
The couple wore surgical masks on campus because their parents in China had asked them to, as a precaution.
Mr Dong, who spent the summer in Melbourne, did not think the virus poses a serious threat here and was not scared.
Carolyn Webb is a reporter for The Age.
Paul is a reporter for The Age.