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Q&A: CDC travel advisories prompt changes in campus travel, visitor policies

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 for the UC Berkeley campus. Below is an interview with the chancellor and Tomás Aragón, a member of the SARS task force and the director of the UC Berkeley Center for Infectious Disease Preparedness.

Q: 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 essentially 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.

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

Chancellor Berdahl and Tomás Aragón of the Center for Infectious Disease Preparedness
Chancellor Robert Berdahl (left) discusses SARS with Tomás Aragón, director of the UC Berkeley Center for Infectious Disease Preparedness. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

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

Q: What about full-time 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 Services for a 10-day period after they return.

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 that if they do develop symptoms, who to contact and how to prevent spreading infection to someone else.

Q: 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 from the infected areas.

Q: UC Berkeley regularly hosts visitors from those areas at conferences or 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.

If you are holding a conference or hosting visitors from these areas, you need you to notify UHS well in advance.

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.

Q: 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 with 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.

Q: 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.

Aragón: 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.

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

Berdahl: Yes, 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.

Q: 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.

Q: Finally, where can people call to get more details about these regulations and, especially, where than 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 web site. 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.