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A few days after announcing updated restrictions on travel to Ebola-infected countries, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 said in a sit-down interview Tuesday that he believes that Harvard students should still be more concerned about the flu than Ebola.
“Unless things change, the greater risk to the health and wellbeing of members of the Harvard community will be from the ordinary seasonal flu,” Garber said. “Which is not to say we’re unconcerned about Ebola, but I think it’s important for people to understand what risks are of various kinds of illnesses and the different ways they might suffer ill health.”
Yet despite what University Health Services Director Paul J. Barreira called the very small chance that someone who has recently travelled to an infected country will come on campus with symptoms, administrators from the University and University Health Services have been updating protocols and preparing for various scenarios.
“One of the silver linings to this cloud of the risk of Ebola has been that it’s forcing healthcare providers around the country to think very hard about how to prepare for any kind of epidemic or severe infectious disease,” Garber said.
Per updated travel guidelines released last Friday, any Harvard affiliate planning to travel to high-risk Ebola countries—which currently include Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia—must receive approval from Garber. Garber said Tuesday that while there are some exceptions for essential travel, most students wishing to study abroad or conduct research in the three high-risk countries will not be approved.
Barreira, who joined Garber for the sit-down, confirmed that no student of the University has been in an affected country in the last 21 days, which is Ebola’s incubation period. He also said that no one is currently in an affected country under Harvard sponsorship or through a Harvard program; there are, however, Harvard affiliates in the region through other programs.
If the situation does not improve, Garber said students who reside in the high-risk countries will be discouraged from returning home during winter break. The University is currently working out the details for accommodating students from Ebola-infected countries who choose to remain on campus during winter break, he said.
“The University and the College are working on arrangements to accommodate students who would not be advised to return to areas that are high risk,” Garber said.
Barreira also detailed the planning exercises that University President Drew G. Faust mentioned in an interview on Friday. UHS has conducted a simulation exercise for front desk workers and nurses on how to handle any patient with Ebola-like symptoms who says they have recently been in a high-risk country. He said these exercises will continue for other UHS employees.
“It’s sort of like CPR in that you have to practice it,” Barreira said. “If you don’t use it you’ll lose it.”
In these exercises, any patient that presents himself at UHS who is suspected of having Ebola will be quarantined in a separate room by nurses equipped with masks, gloves, and gowns, according to Barreira. The next step would be to contact either Cambridge or Boston public health officials, who would then take over the case, starting by arranging the patient’s transport to the hospital, and bring in the Center for Disease Control.
“There’s no way we can screen everyone who sets foot on campus property or who might have some sort of contact with a member of the Harvard community, so we’re very dependent on the effectiveness of general public health measures,” Garber said.
Barreira said that UHS has thus far screened 200 people with no known contact, but has yet to see a patient at low or high risk of contracting the virus.
Over the last few months, the University has reached out to students from the high risk countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Nigeria used to be included in this list, but has since been declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organization.
"The University has reached out a couple times checking in and I appreciate it. I appreciate the fact that they are being proactive since Harvard has such an international community,” said Chisom M. Okpala ’15, who is from Nigeria. "There have been no emails about special travel arrangements since Nigeria was just declared Ebola-free.”
—Staff writers Matthew Q. Clarida and Amna H. Hashmi contributed to the reporting of this article.
—Staff writer Christine Y. Cahill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cycahill16.
—Staff writer Jill E. Steinman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jillsteinman.
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