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Campus Anxiety: The Threat of SARS

May 19, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Now the fear of SARS on campus. Spencer Michels reports.

SPENCER MICHELS: During the last week of classes, students at the University of California at Berkeley were soliciting donations to buy face masks to send to China, while a controversy swirled around university policy on SARS. The SARS epidemic in Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong has sent American universities scrambling to cancel student programs abroad, and to figure out what to do with Asian students who had planned on coming to the U.S. Berkeley became the first major university to take action. It announced May 2, it would turn away nearly 600 Asian students who planned to attend summer session, most of them coming to learn English. Dr. Peter Dietrich, university medical director and a member of the campus SARS task force, endorsed the policy saying Berkeley was unique among colleges and had to act quickly.

DR. PETER DIETRICH: Our summer session starts much earlier. We also have a much larger group than a lot of other universities coming from the SARS affected areas. But more importantly, we have a very tight housing market here. We did not have the facilities available to be able to move people into the isolation and quarantine that would be required were they to develop a temperature of 100.4 or cough or other respiratory symptoms.

SPENCER MICHELS: Officials feared that summer students, most of whom live in dorms where they share bathrooms, could spread the SARS virus if even one of them were infected. Still, the decision to turn back many visiting Asian students provoked immediate reaction on campus and off.

SPOKESMAN: Today is our last day of class.

SPENCER MICHELS: Professor Ling-Chi Wang, who directs Asia American studies at Berkeley, challenged the university’s policy of excluding healthy Asian students as going far beyond the Centers for Disease Control guidelines.

LING-CHI WANG: Well, I thought that the decision by the chancellor was extremely untimely, extremely sweeping, and extremely arbitrary. And, in fact, was an overreaction to a, you know, obviously a very serious public health problem. But there are so many ways of handling this besides taking this draconian step by excluding any and everybody from those countries with or without carrying the epidemic, the virus.

SPENCER MICHELS: Wang said the Chinese had been unfairly blamed for previous epidemics of plague in California, and the anxiety over SARS fits that century-old pattern.

LING-CHI WANG: I do think that the decision seems to have poured fuel into the fire of fear and anxiety among the American public. So I thought that it would have the potential of racializing a public health issue.

SPENCER MICHELS: On the Berkeley campus, which is 34 percent Asian, students were of two minds about the university policy.

STUDENT: I thought it was, you know, kind of exclusionary, but at the same time it’s necessary, precautionary, you know, because it’s an issue that we should deal with. And, I don’t know, it’s a concern, because every time someone coughs, everybody looks twice.

STUDENT: I think it definitely isolates a group of people, especially people from, you know, China and whatnot.

STUDENT: If I was in their position I’d be pretty bummed, but I’d rather not get SARS.

SPENCER MICHELS: The controversy, which received widespread attention in Asia as well as at home, put pressure on administrators of a university usually seen as diverse and racially sensitive. After a week, Chancellor Robert Berdahl announced a modification of the policy not, he stressed, a reversal. And a week later, another change. Now the 80 students coming for academic studies and 124 in English courses can enroll.

ROBERT BERDAHL, Chancellor, UC Berkeley: We have worked to make significant improvements in our ability to care for Asian students who might become ill after they arrive on the Berkeley campus.

SPENCER MICHELS: The university found rooms at the Clark Kerr campus where sick students could be isolated and monitored at a dorm where suites have their own ventilation systems and private bathrooms. If SARS were diagnosed, they would be transferred to a hospital. Most of the 500 students coming just to learn English will still not be admitted.

ROBERT BERDAHL: University extension stands to lose in excess of $1 million from the English as a second language program.

SPENCER MICHELS: Despite travel precautions, the specter of SARS arriving in the country has bred caution at the university, even though there are only about 65 probable SARS cases in the U.S. and no deaths. Dr. Arthur Reingold, head of the division of epidemiology, says Berkeley is not alone in searching for ways to handle the SARS crisis.

DR. ARTHUR REINGOLD, Epidemiologist: Clearly, many universities are struggling with what to do with visitors for graduation, what to do with fall enrollment, what to do with students coming back from these countries all in an effort, on the one hand, to follow CDC guidelines, and on the other hand, to do everything they can to prevent introduction of the virus in to their communities.

SPENCER MICHELS: Reingold is being sent by the university on a mission to Hong Kong to reassure Berkeley’s graduates, supporters, and donors that the university is handling the SARS threat responsibly.

DR. ARTHUR REINGOLD: I think there are many people in the community both here and abroad who are very unhappy with the policy, and feel it’s discriminatory or that it’s an overreaction. And I think the university needs to make clear what it has done, what it wants to do in the future, why it’s done it.

SPENCER MICHELS: At the end of the summer, the university expects 700 full time students to return to Berkeley from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China. It is looking to ready more isolation rooms. It has asked, but not required, those returning students to report any suspicious symptoms, and it is watching the world SARS situation closely for changes that might affect university policy.