May 13, 2003

SCC session discusses SARS plan

The University's Student Care Center (SCC) sponsored a staff-wide training session last weekend to prepare for a possible outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), as reports of a rising number of cases worldwide lead institutions to take precautions against possible outbreaks.

The University is currently developing a contingency plan for a possible SARS outbreak, according to Cheryl Gutman, deputy dean of students for housing and dining and assistant dean of the College, and a member of the task force to determine a response to the SARS outbreak.

Gutman said that it would probably take several more weeks for the University to complete its emergency plan, citing the need to address details such as confidentiality for students. "We're not really concerned about SARS for this year, but far more concerned for the fall, when students start coming back," Gutman said.

Gutman said that those present at the University's session were trained as "first-responders" for dealing with SARS.

"They have to follow a very specific protocol to prevent an epidemic," Gutman said. "The procedure requires getting the patient a gas mask, calling a physician, making arrangements to get into the hospital, as well as informing the patient's house about how to prevent the disease from spreading."

According to Sarah Van Orman, assistant professor of medicine and director of SCC, the school is following guidelines provided by the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Van Orman declined to comment as to whether the University's study abroad programs would be affected by the spreading virus, saying it was too early to tell. "The situation has changed even in the past few weeks," Van Orman said, reiterating that the CDC's guidelines would play a big role in determining the fate of the programs.

As far as helping to combat SARS, the Pritzker School of Medicine at the U of C is not conducting any research directly involved in trying to find a cure for the disease.

The reason for this is that SARS, a coronavirus that has mutated, could be related to any of several hundred viruses, according to John Easton, director of media affairs for the medical school.

"On this the research has been centered at the Center for Disease Control," Easton said.

Olaf Schneewind, a professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology, added that some other institutions are more specialized to conduct timely field research.

"The U of C has not quite been doing these things in a long while," Schneewind said.

Kelly Carameli, a health educator at SCC, said that the University has not received an advisory against overseas studies from the World Health Organization.

Everyone interviewed for this story indicated that the University is keeping a close eye on how other schools are handling the problem. In an extreme case-Van Orman called it an "outlier"-the University of California-Berkeley has prohibited the summer enrollment of students from SARS-afflicted areas.

Since that decision was announced, Berkeley has modified the restriction and will allow 80 foreign students from SARS-afflicted areas back onto campus, agreeing to set up separate housing for them.