By Austin J Schofield for the Mass Media
Feb. 1—Interim Chancellor Katherine Newman dispirited the entire UMass Boston staff and student bodies with news about a confirmed student case of the coronavirus in the community, the first of the virus in Massachusetts. It was later reported that the student was a male in his twenties who returned to Boston’s Logan Airport from Wuhan, China, the supposed epicenter of the viral outbreak. As the Boston Herald reports, the student exhibited few and minor symptoms upon returning to the U.S., one being a runny nose. The day following his return, however, the student felt worse, and subsequently sought medical treatment at University Health Services thereafter. Thankfully, this student is safe and moving toward a complete recovery, according to reports from officials.
Now, a more pertinent issue to discuss would be the administration’s response to this incident—as many on this campus would argue, it was unclear and a bit worrying. I assert that public health and safety officials’ responses must be transparent, concise, and contain all important information, and in this instance, the UMass Boston community did not receive a response of this quality. Though the focus should remain on safety and containing this virus, it is also important that, as a community, we acknowledge questionable responses to risks and try to explain them—we must prevent them from being repeated. UMass Boston's response to this public health threat was certainly unclear, and there are a few possible reasons why the response was approached in this way.
As mentioned, Newman addressed the University’s community on Feb. 1, but little information in this email provided insight into exactly what unfolded with regard to this student’s visit to the campus. In fact, the email did not even mention that the student visited the campus. The two large points that can be drawn from it are, simply, that a student that left Wuhan and returned to Boston was infected, and that the administration expected “business as usual.” Again, no information in this email alluded to whether or not the infected student visited the campus physically, if they attended classes or interacted with clubs, and for how long they were in Boston. The letter also did not give the date of the student’s visit to University Health Services. None of this information came until later. The letter’s disregard for the importance of these facts to the community illustrates how unclear this school’s response was from the start.
Almost immediately, Newman’s lax suggestion for “business as usual” was met with backlash from members of both the student and staff bodies. One professor, Avak Hasratian of the College of Liberal Arts, sent an email to students in his class expressing his distaste for the information carried by Newman’s letter. In it, he criticized the “business as usual” suggestion, saying “this is an unscientific approach and is the opposite of accountable transparency.” Though the risk was low and remained low throughout the weeks following, fear surrounded the unknowns of this disease was certainly warranted. At the end of the day, it’s a novel strain, and without scientific study, it can be hard to understand how easily a virus will spread. As of March 3, the CDC states that “the virus that causes COVID-19 seems to be spreading easily and sustainably in the community in some affected areas (e.g. China).” The CDC’s mention of the virus’ ability to spread quickly provides some backing to those fearful of the risk—and furthers the point that the University’s approach was inappropriate.
On this letter, Jana Trehan, a UMass Boston student, says “as soon as I saw that email, I was disheartened because I knew it would solicit a wave of inappropriate and uncalled for responses.” She noted witnessing several “openly racist” comments on social media. Although UMB administration may have chosen to be vague to avoid panic or prejudice sentiments, some believe that the lack of transparency actually increased the chances of these things happening, and so do I. When room is left for speculation, our imaginations can cause a lot of havoc; this is something that could have easily been cleared up with some simple admission of details.
On Feb. 2, Katherine Newman followed up her previous letter via email with another, once again stressing a “business as usual” approach to all campus activities. In this letter, she notes that the infected individual was “isolated,” but again, does not specifically explain the circumstances of any on-campus visits by this student, or provide a timeline. Again, the administration seemed to reiterate an ambiguous response. In a Feb. 7 news article, Claire Speredelozzi of the Mass Media staff reported that there were students on campus frustrated by the fact that the administration did not specifically state in these letters (Feb. 1 and 2) that the infected student visited the campus.
Though the details of the infected students visit to campus were already leaked and published by other sources (e.g. Boston Herald), it wasn’t until a publicly held briefing much after the two letters (Feb. 1 and 2) that the UMass Boston administration finally acknowledged the circumstances and provided answers to remaining questions, according to Speredelozzi's article. Hosted by Rob Pomales, Executive Director of UHS, and Gail DiSabatino, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, the briefing confirmed the following: the student came to Logan from Wuhan with minor symptoms on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, and sought attention at UHS on Jan. 29, 2020 after symptoms worsened. Throughout this briefing, it was reinforced that the student had “limited contact” with others on the campus and that his close contacts were also being monitored—but fears surrounding this still-unclear description of events were warranted.
My honest opinion is that UMass Boston’s avoidance of providing detail-specific information regarding this occurrence was likely rooted in a fear of inciting panic or a fear of creating disenfranchising sentiments toward certain groups on campus. Anti-Chinese sentiments, in January and early February were already being asserted in areas around the world, with an example being in Japan, where “#CHINESEDONTCOMETOJAPAN” was trending on Twitter. On Feb. 4, Chancellor Newman sent out another email, one that was probably a response to reports of microaggressions against Asian students on campus. In this email, she calls for the community to “avoid the pitfalls that may arise elsewhere of stereotyping or discrimination against anyone.” She also notes that “some members of the community are feeling greater stress than usual.” Microaggressions were mentioned by Speredelozzi, in her article, and many students witnessed these occurring. Since reports of these certainly reached administration, I assume that this letter was an indirect way to address them—and combat any continuing xenophobic remarks or acts on UMass Boston campus. This email is one piece of evidence making me believe that the questionable approach to COVID-19 on campus was part of UMB’s attempt to protect the diverse community it serves.
One other administrative letter that makes me think this approach was an international attempt to avoid panic or hatred on campus was one blast letter by Rob Pomales, in which he announced that the student who was infected had surpassed the typical 14-day incubation period without symptoms—and asserted that “the risk for this one case at UMass Boston continues to be low.” Although it is certainly encouraging to hear that the infected UMass Boston student was no longer exhibiting symptoms, it's important to note that two consecutive negative tests for the virus are required to officially clear a patient, as mentioned by Rita Nieves in an NECN article published on Feb. 27. I feel that Pomales’ perspective on this case was focused on the positives to promote optimism within the UMass Boston community, but I still feel as though disclosing the technical criteria for a “cleared case” is vital to maintaining transparency. Nonetheless, this email offers further insight into the possibility that the administration’s approach was aimed at combating possible panic, even if the resulting confusion caused further issues.
Recapping the holistic approach of UMass Boston on informing the community of an on-campus case of COVID-19, we can see that ambiguity was abundant throughout early February. Many outside sources reported on details of the students on-campus activities prior to the University acknowledging these details. That being said, a student at UMass Boston should not find out from the Boston Herald that a case of a novel-virus was present on the campus—it is, without a doubt, UMass Boston’s responsibility to properly inform its students of any and all health concerns, and to do so with transparency. As is the University’s mission, transparent responses to public risks are a component of “serving the public good of our city, our commonwealth, our nation, and our world.” I digress from this point to acknowledge the likelihood that this response was probably an attempt to deter anti-Chinese sentiments, or to avoid mass panic, but again, the students and faculty on this campus deserve the full truth when confronted with a risk like this. There must be a way to boost optimism, protect the communities diversity, and still conserve the whole truth, and I call for our administration to find the answer.