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From the Archives: dealing with the SARS virus in 2003

Note from the editors: The Carletonian is 133 years old, with over 3,400 issues published since its inception. To reflect and learn from the newspaper’s substantial history, pieces from the archive will be republished that have particular relevance either to the viewpoint topic or current events. We hope that these articles will provoke thought about how the similarities and differences of past perspectives on current issues inform our understanding of these issues today. Some articles will be edited for clarity. These articles are reflections of their time and do not represent the viewpoints of the editorial staff. Some content will be removed or edited to fit within the bounds of what is acceptable to publish today.

May 16, 2003

Question of the Week:

What, responsibility would Carleton have had to its students and to the residents of Northfield (who otherwise did nothing to put themselves at risk of getting the illness) if it brought back to campus a student who had acquired the SARS virus on a college-sponsored trip?

In answering a question, it is sometimes helpful to reflect on the form of the question before diving in. Language not only reflects reality, but shapes it as well, sometimes powerfully. The form of this question assumes that a student had SARS. We, however, gathering all the information we could, assumed that the probability of a student having contracted SARS was very low. What responsibility would Carleton have had if, knowing students would have had to come back to somewhere, the College had made it impossible for students to return to campus? That is, had a student contracted SARS, would it have been more responsible for us to send that student off to a different community? Sidestepping the hypothetical for a moment, let’s bundle the questions this way: was it ethical for the college to bring the students back to campus?

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you get a little bit of time to make and shape important decisions, and this was the case with the decision to bring the Beijing seminar students back to campus. Between the time Carleton College officials and program directors decided that the program needed to leave China and the time we communicated this to the students on the program, their families and the wider world, we had an opportunity to really think through what we were and were not prepared to do.

The first question we asked ourselves was “what is the likelihood that our students were exposed to the SARS virus?” The answer was “not very likely, “ which allowed all of us to plan for a slower departure from China. The second question was “Were we prepared to bring students back to Northfield?” The first thought some of us had was “wouldn’t it be great if students could stop in Hawaii or Seattle or Fargo—anywhere other than Northfield—before returning to campus?” This would have been convenient and risk-free for those of us in Minnesota, but was it ethical (or practical)? If the students posed such a significant health threat that they shouldn’t be allowed to return to campus, then where should they go? Fan out across the U. S. to thirty-five different locales? Hunker down in some large city where no one would know them or know they had been to Asia?

As we asked ourselves these questions and thought through our options, the ironies mounted. We knew flights were arriving in Minneapolis from Asia (even from Hong Kong!) daily, and no one in Asia was taking temperatures before travelers boarded airplanes and no one state-side was taking travelers’ temperatures as they got off the planes. The airlines and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were advocating self-monitoring but no one was following up to ensure that the self-monitoring was being done. We heard about people in Northfield who had just arrived back from Asia and moved right back into their houses! “The students should go home,” some people argued, but of course some of the students actually live in Northfield and the surrounding communities, and the rest had a right to consider Northfield and Carleton at least one of their homes. “They shouldn’t be allowed to come to Spring Concert, “ others argued, but no one was proposing screening everyone else who came to Spring Concert. Over two hundred visitors were on campus for accepted students’ weekends, and not one of them had been screened for exposure to SARS or for other communicable diseases that can have very serious medical consequences.

The bottom line, of course, was that we had good reason to believe the students did not present a significant health threat, for the following reasons:
• There was no medical evidence asymptomatic people were contagious, and the medical community appeared united about this;
• Students had been out of Beijing for two weeks when they left for the U. S. and in fact the students’ itinerary was being continuously modified to ensure that they were in low risk circumstances;
• CDC was advocating self-monitoring, but no more extreme measures. (Professor Penny Prime — one of the program directors — contacted the CDC in Atlanta to see if she and her son should take the test being piloted there before returning to her home; when they learned she was asymptomatic, they told her they were not interested.)

We concluded that there was the same risk no matter where they landed; therefore, the students were free to go where they wanted, residence halls excepted. We knew that bringing the students back into a densely-packed residential environment, full of students with stress and weak immune systems was not prudent, but we were prepared to manage that.

It appears that no one contracted SARS, nor did they bring SARS back with them, for which I am more grateful than I can say. But given what we knew and understood, I think that even if someone had developed a confirmed case of SARS, we Would still have done the right thing. What responsibility would Carleton have had?

Comparative responsibility is hard to measure, but it is worth pointing out that we could not have avoided responsibility; we were required to act and our actions would have consequences. We could have made choices that were neither prudent nor ethical, putting others in risky situations we ourselves sought to avoid. That would have been easy, but it would not have made it right. Ethics turned out to play an enormous part in our decisions: paramount in our thinking at every stage was the understanding that these were our students, and we owed them the respect and care that we owe to all students and the goal of doing the right thing for the students and everyone else.

Fortunately, this was the kind of situation where we had no trouble behaving both responsibly and ethically—to our students in the field, our students on campus, and people in the surrounding community.

Note from original 2003 publication: Elizabeth Ciner is Associate Dean of the College. The views expressed by the “Carleton Ethicist” are not necessarily those of Carleton College or of all the “Carleton Ethicist” contributors.

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