UPDATED: March 24, 2016, at 10:15 p.m.
Amid this semester’s mumps outbreak, students living in the Harvard Inn expressed concern last week that they were not immediately informed by the University that mumps patients were being quarantined in the building. The news took at least six days to reach students housed at the Inn, who have otherwise received frequent updates from administrators via email about the growing number of cases.
Christopher M. Gilbert, the acting dean of Dudley House, which now runs the Inn, explained that Harvard uses several of the rooms for “emergency housing” situations, about which students are not necessarily notified. “In order to protect the privacy of our students who need to avail themselves of such housing, the College does not notify residents of the circumstances of who is using such suites and for what reasons,” Gilbert said.
Nevertheless, in this case, the University should have informed residents of the Inn earlier about the new quarantined residents. At its core, this is a matter of common courtesy, and the revelation that the University kept this information from students does not set minds at ease. Withholding these developments also seems to undermine the University’s detailed efforts to provide students with frequent updates on the situation.
It is also true, however, that students should not overreact to the 16 confirmed cases of mumps on campus. While the sickness is indeed contagious, it is primarily spread through salivary contact and not via the air. Thus, should students heed administrators’ advice—such as frequently washing their hands and avoiding shared glasses or utensils—they have little reason to fear. Furthermore, it should be noted that though mumps can result in serious complications, according to the CDC it is typically mild and only deadly "in rare cases."
Despite the need for calm, however, students deserve to know about potential health issues in their living spaces. The slow notification of students at the Harvard Inn resembles how Winthrop House handled its asbestos case earlier this year. As with the current mumps outbreak, the University was clearly prepared to deal with the issue, but administrators should have informed students of the problem sooner even if it was appropriately managed with “third party experts.”Ultimately, the quarantining of students with mumps at the Inn should not concern residents, and we must all keep the gravity of this outbreak in appropriate perspective. Still, in its efforts to communicate clearly and completely with students, the University should be more proactive in releasing information about how it is addressing health issues like mumps and asbestos. Neither issue presents any grave cause for concern, but students should be kept abreast of how their living spaces are being used.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: March 24, 2016
Correction: The original version of this editorial incorrectly stated that the number of confirmed mumps cases is 13. It is now 16.
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