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SARS caution warrants new policies

07 May 2003

This week Chancellor Robert M. Berdahl, with the advice of the campus’s SARS task force and public health agencies, has issued updated policies and procedures on SARS for the Berkeley campus. Below is an interview with the chancellor and with Tomás Aragón, a member of the SARS task force and the director of the UC Berkeley Center for Infectious Disease Preparedness.

You have issued exacting new SARS guidelines for the campus. First, let’s talk about travel from UC Berkeley to the areas of concern cited by the Centers for Disease Control, namely Hong Kong, Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China, and Singapore. What are the new rules?

Chancellor Berdahl: We have banned travel using university funds to these areas except where it is absolutely essential. The determination of what is essential travel is left up to the vice chancellor in whose area the person is employed.

Several other universities, including Harvard, have taken similar steps.

This doesn’t affect personal travel. For that, people are free to make their own decisions. But even for personal travel, if you have been to one of these areas, we ask that you check in with the University Health Services on your return.

(Editor’s note: Since this interview, Singapore has been taken off the CDC’s travel advisory list, although the CDC still recommends that travelers take health precautions. Travel to Singapore is no longer restricted, and students from Singapore may enroll in Berkeley summer programs.)

What about students coming to Berkeley from those areas for Summer Sessions and UC Extension classes? Will they be allowed to attend classes?

Berdahl: No they won’t, unfortunately. We have essentially cancelled [enrollment] for those students, at least until the CDC lifts the ban [travel advisories] for those areas. We are notifying students now who have enrolled in these programs.

What about international students from these areas who will return to the campus for the fall semester?

Berdahl: When they return to the campus they will be called upon to fill out a detailed questionnaire on the state of their health, and they will be monitored by the University Health Service for a 10-day period after they return.

How will the monitoring process work?

Tomás Aragón: The details of the monitoring still have to be worked out. A lot will depend on the answers to the questionnaire they fill out. For example, if they visited a hospital where SARS patients have been treated, they might be asked not to attend classes for at least 10 days.

The other important point is for everyone who returns from these areas to have really good education and information. We want them to know if they do develop symptoms who to contact and how to prevent spreading infection to someone else.

And what about visiting scholars and others planning on coming to campus from those regions?

Berdahl: We will be dealing with them in the same way we would be dealing with students returning [for the fall] from the infected areas [requiring a questionnaire and monitoring].

UC Berkeley regularly hosts visitors from those areas at conferences for smaller group and individual visits. Will they be allowed to come?

Berdahl:We haven’t banned visitors. Some of the visitors have been in the country for several weeks before they come to Berkeley.

We are asking departments to exercise caution in deciding and to weigh carefully whether these visits are essential, especially if they are inviting them to come now. And if they do have visitors from these areas arriving, they need to notify University Health Services [as far in advance as possible].

Aragón: Part of the process of receiving the visitors is to make sure they have an appropriate orientation in terms of what health services are available to them and that they report early symptoms so that we can facilitate any access they need to medical attention.

Are there restrictions on visitors coming for commencement events?

Berdahl: No, but we do ask that if individuals who have been in areas where there are outbreaks of SARS develop symptoms while they are here that they contact the University Health Services.

Why the tighter rules now? Has the campus had any SARS-related problems?

Berdahl: No, the campus has had no problems whatsoever, but we are taking precautionary steps. These may seem to some like extreme precautionary steps, but they are taken with a great deal of consideration and advice from the California Department of Health Services, the city of Berkeley’s public health officers, the CDC guidelines, and our own experts, including Tomás Aragón.

Aragón: One important point is that when you have a lot of people arrive here, we have a real responsibility to take good care of them. One of the dilemmas is that if a number of people arriving from these areas develop symptoms, they would have to go into voluntary isolation and the university would have to make sure their medical and nutritional — all their needs — are met. Currently the university is not set up to do that.

How long will these new rules be in effect? And will there be more changes coming?

Berdahl: There will be continual updates as we know more about the disease. But I think these rules will be in effect until the situation gets clarified and we know how to deal with it.

Aragon: One rule of thumb for people who want to know what countries are on the list is to go to the CDC website and read the health advisories. The list will show the countries the CDC is recommending against non-essential travel.

How big an impact will the limits on students attending summer courses have on Summer Sessions and Extension?

Berdahl: There is a very pronounced financial impact. Extension stands to lose in the neighborhood of $1 million. And the housing program could lose up to $500,000.

UC Berkeley has such close ties to these countries. Are you concerned these restrictions could chill our relationships with these regions?

Berdahl: I think people understand the need to contain the spread of this disease. Our friends and alumni will clearly understand. I’m sure they are concerned about it as well.

Finally, where can people call to get more details about these regulations and, especially, where can they go to get specific questions answered?

Berdahl: As this is a quickly changing situation, the best source for up-to date information on campus policy and actions is the UC Berkeley NewsCenter website (newscenter.berkeley.edu). The NewsCenter page will highlight important new developments as they arise. In addition, the NewsCenter provides a standing link to an archive of SARS-related campus communications, background with campus experts, and links to the CDC and other official sites.

For further information about or clarification of these policies, contact Associate Chancellor John Cummins (642-7516 or e-mail jcummins@uclink4.berkeley.edu). For further information on health matters related to SARS, contact Pamela Cameron at the University Health Services (642-1814 or e-mail pcameron@uhs.berkeley.edu).

How the SARS decision was reached
In recommending that UC Berkeley restrict summer enrollment by students from SARS-affected regions, public-health officials took into consideration three key points:

• That more than 500 students from these regions would be arriving for summer session classes, some within three weeks.

• Unlike UC Berkeley students, most of whom live in apartments and houses, most of these short-stay summer students would be living in campus residence halls, sharing restroom and dining facilities.

• Because these short-stay summer students would be coming from countries with significant SARS outbreaks, any student exhibiting SARS symptoms, such as respiratory illness, would have to be isolated 10 days.
A recent (Feb. 2003) study co-authored by the CDC reported that respiratory tract infections were the second most common cause of illness in travelers. Given the number of students coming from areas experiencing SARS outbreaks, if even 5 percent developed respiratory illness within 10 days of arrival it would represent a major challenge to the campus’s ability to respond.

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