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UC Berkeley Issues Ban Over SARS

It bars new summer students from areas under CDC advisory. Fall classes unaffected.

May 06, 2003|Rebecca Trounson and Errin Haines | Times Staff Writers

Citing growing concern over the risk of infection from the SARS virus, UC Berkeley has decided to bar new students from China, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong from attending summer classes on the campus.

UC Berkeley's action, which is expected to affect about 500 students, was the only such move so far in the UC system, officials said Monday. But others may follow soon since the UC system headquarters on Monday urged all its campuses to consider such a step as a health precaution.

National experts in higher education said UC Berkeley's decision appears to be the first such action by a major U.S. university to try to prevent the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome, a flu-like illness that has killed nearly 500 people and sickened thousands, mostly in China and Hong Kong.

The UC Berkeley action would affect summer classes only, about half of them classes in intensive English. It would not bar new full-time students from the designated parts of Asia from enrolling in the fall or returning to school in the fall from a visit home. Students who go home to China, Taiwan, Singapore or Hong Kong for the summer, as well as new students who arrive from such areas for the fall term, will be required to fill out detailed questionnaires and will be monitored by university health officials.

"The idea is that we will have procedures in place by the fall to deal with this," Associate Chancellor John Cummins said. He said the precautionary measures will end if the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifts its travel advisories to the affected areas.

The summer school students who are barred will receive refunds at a cost to the university of at least $1.5 million, he said.

Late Monday, UC's systemwide office of the president issued guidelines urging its 10 campuses to "strongly consider suspending or postponing upcoming programs hosting groups of students from SARS-affected countries or regions," until travel advisories are modified or rescinded.

"Individuals from countries that have an advisory in effect risk exporting SARS or becoming ill themselves during travel," Michael Drake, the UC's vice president for health affairs, said in a statement. The CDC has issued travel advisories for China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan.

The UC statement, which followed a late afternoon conference call linking health officials and senior administrators at many of the campuses, urged all UC students, faculty and staff to postpone any nonessential travel to SARS-affected areas.

The UC Berkeley action on summer school comes after recent decisions by the University of California, USC and other colleges in California and elsewhere to suspend or cancel their overseas studies programs in China for the spring and summer terms.

David Ward, president of the Washington-based American Council on Education, said universities and colleges nationwide are grappling with how to deal with SARS, seeking to protect their campuses without overly restricting access to the education they offer.

Ward, whose organization represents more than 1,000 four-year institutions, said he had not heard of other universities acting like Berkeley to impose a ban on incoming summer students, although he said some smaller schools may have done so without much publicity.

"Universities are in a tricky situation with this since it's clearly a very sensitive issue," Ward said. "But it wouldn't surprise me if more were to follow in the next month."

UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl and other officials said they made the decision to ban the summer enrollment of students from SARS-affected areas after consulting local public health officials and campus experts. They felt they had to make a decision quickly because the popular summer sessions are scheduled to start at the end of May. The announcement was posted Friday on the campus Web site.

Cummins said the campus decided on a ban because of the large number of students from SARS-affected areas who were planning to attend the summer sessions, and because each of those students would have to be monitored for 10 days after arrival. If any were to develop SARS-like symptoms, the CDC would require extensive precautions, including isolation, he said.

"Once in isolation, meals would have to be provided, housing would have to be arranged and we would quickly be overwhelmed," Cummins said. "We decided that this was something we couldn't do."

He said the university regretted the decision but felt it had no choice.

Public health experts on the UC Berkeley campus said the decision was reasonable, given the circumstances.

"We really don't know how this epidemic is going to evolve over the next couple of months," said Dr. Lee W. Riley, a UC Berkeley epidemiologist. "They are being cautious, which is a reasonable thing to do. Because this is a disease for which we still have a limited understanding, it is best to be on the safe side and take precautions."

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