Texas universities watching for SARS
Precautions taken on campuses; programs abroad altered


By MICHAEL GRABELL / The Dallas Morning News

Six students at the University of North Texas had an extra program to attend during their orientation this month.

Every other day during their lunch break, they stopped by the health center, where nurses took their temperatures and checked for respiratory problems.

The Taiwanese students were being screened for severe acute respiratory syndrome under a new UNT policy that requires students and employees to report to the health center for 10 days after arriving from a country where SARS has been reported.

Meanwhile, in Austin, the University of Texas has formed a task force to track SARS developments and keep the campus informed. And the University of Texas at Dallas has set aside a clubhouse to quarantine anyone who has received a SARS diagnosis.

On the radar

Although Texas has been almost entirely untouched by SARS, the disease is on the radar of university administrators. The combination of students and faculty members traveling abroad and a high number of international students make colleges and universities not only a crossroads of ideas, but also tinder for viruses to spread rapidly.

Because of that environment, "if there was an error to be made, it was to err on the side of caution," said Reginald Bond, executive director of UNT's Student Health and Wellness Services.

'It's unnecessary'

But others say the reaction is excessive now that SARS has lost some of its momentum.

"I think it's unnecessary," said Vera Wang, vice president of UNT's Chinese students association.

In all, the World Health Organization has reported 8,464 probable cases of SARS worldwide and 799 deaths. Seventy-three of those probable cases – but no deaths – were in the United States.

The University of California at Berkeley drew fire this spring when it announced that it would bar students coming from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The school has since lifted some restrictions. Texas universities contacted this week said they plan to allow all students admitted from those countries to come.

Yet some have stopped students from going the other way. Spurred by panicking parents and travel warnings, many schools axed or relocated study-abroad programs when SARS concerns peaked this spring.

At the height of the SARS outbreak in April, UT called back 16 students who were studying abroad in affected countries.

Students in the University of Texas at Dallas School of Management spent several months studying Chinese business to prepare for a trip to China to interview businessmen. But a few weeks before they were set to leave, travel advisories forced the university to relocate the trip to Italy.

A similar program at UNT was moved from Hong Kong to Malaysia. Only 20 students – about half of what coordinators expected – have signed up for the July trip to tour textile and clothing factories in Kuala Lumpur.

"SARS had a tremendous impact," said Dee Knight, co-director of the trip. "We were fielding a lot of questions and lost a lot of students."

She added, however, that some students chose not to go because they were no longer going to Hong Kong.

'Not panicking'

As university administrators plan for the fall, the general response of some is simply to alert students to the symptoms and what to do if they develop.

"As far as we are concerned, there has not been a confirmed case in Texas," said Shelli Ogburn, a health center spokeswoman at the University of Texas at Arlington.

"For that reason, we are not panicking."

E-mail mgrabell@dallasnews.com