Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is calling on the University System of Maryland Board of Regents to investigate the handling of an adenovirus outbreak last fall on the flagship College Park campus that killed an 18-year-old freshman and sickened more than 40 other students.
Hogan, in a sharply worded letter sent Thursday morning to the university system’s governing board, said the circumstances surrounding the November death of Olivia Shea Paregol should be investigated immediately with specific attention paid to decision-making by university officials who waited 18 days to tell students about the presence of the virus.
“It appears that, at just about every turn, leaders withheld information instead of being open and honest with the student body,” Hogan (R) wrote. “There should never be a question as to whether the campus community will receive timely and accurate information, especially when it is an urgent matter of public health and safety.”
Hogan’s letter followed a report by The Washington Post that revealed university officials remained quiet for more than two weeks as the virus spread through campus and landed students in hospital emergency rooms. The director of the University of Maryland’s student health center waited until after Paregol’s death to inform students about the viral outbreak.
In the coming days, the regents say they will review and discuss the options for meeting the governor’s directive and will work with officials on the College Park campus to see that a “thorough and transparent investigation takes place.”
The university said in a statement Thursday it will “be forthcoming and accessible and will work closely with the Board and the Governor’s office to provide information and understanding about our actions and close coordination” with state, county and federal health officials.
The Board of Regents during the past year oversaw two investigations into the death of another U-Md. student, Jordan McNair, a 19-year-old football player who succumbed to heatstroke in June 2018. The investigations, which cost nearly $1.7 million, found various problems, including that athletic trainers waited more than an hour to call 911 after McNair showed signs of exhaustion.
“Mr. McNair’s death rightfully prompted multiple investigations and brought to light numerous inadequacies in how the university dealt with a medical emergency,” Hogan wrote. “Unfortunately, I am deeply concerned that the University learned nothing from that troubling and tragic episode.”
While U-Md. President Wallace D. Loh took “legal and moral responsibility” for the death of McNair, Loh has denied shortcomings in the university’s response to the viral outbreak.
“Our approach to reporting, testing, cleaning and communicating about the virus was coordinated with health officials, and exceeded” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, Loh said in a statement after The Post published its report May 16.
A Board of Regents spokesman previously told The Post that the chancellor of the university system has asked all presidents in the University System of Maryland “to review their policies, processes, and communications related to incidents of infectious diseases and environmental hazards to ensure best practices in responding to these matters.”
Hogan, in his letter, pressed the governing board to go further and review the handling of the adenovirus outbreak, including the response by the student health center, and publicly release its findings.
“The Paregol family’s grief has been considerably worsened by the lack of urgency — and lack of transparency — shown by university officials before and after Olivia’s death,” Hogan wrote. “There are serious questions about how this happened, and the families who entrust their children to your care deserve your assurance that they will receive answers.”
Ian Paregol, the father of Olivia Paregol, said he hoped a “truly independent body” would examine the circumstances surrounding the outbreak and his daughter’s death, including communication with public health officials and compliance with the college’s infectious disease response policies.
The Paregol family, which notified U-Md. on May 20 of a potential wrongful death claim, believes the teenager could still be alive if the university had not withheld information about the presence of adenovirus, giving doctors more time to administer an antiviral treatment.
Adenovirus can have symptoms similar to a cold or flu, but some virulent strains can sicken healthy adults and be lethal to individuals with weakened immune systems, such as Olivia Paregol, who was on medication to treat Crohn’s disease, a chronic digestive tract condition. In these cases, early detection can be key to treating severe adenovirus, according to medical experts.
David McBride, the director of the university health center, first learned Nov. 1 that a student had been hospitalized with adenovirus. The next day, Paregol visited the university health center complaining of a sore throat, fever, fatigue and swollen lymph nodes, according to medical records. No one mentioned that adenovirus could be a possible cause of her sickness.
Adenovirus was making national headlines because it had been linked to the deaths of children with weakened immune systems living at a long-term care facility in New Jersey. That outbreak killed 11 children and sickened more than two dozen.
Paregol languished as doctors struggled to pinpoint the cause of her illness. On Nov. 13, her father called the university pleading for answers while the medical condition of the freshman deteriorated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. It was only then that McBride disclosed to Paregol’s father that there were adenovirus cases on campus.
Paregol tested positive for adenovirus that day and doctors quickly began an antiviral treatment. The teenager died five days later.
Ian Paregol said any investigation into U-Md. should also examine overcrowding and mold in the dorms. A mold outbreak sickened College Park students and set the stage for additional health problems. Olivia Paregol had struggled with respiratory problems during the fall semester while living in Elkton Hall, a mold-infested dorm from which students had to be relocated.
Mold does not cause adenovirus, but McBride, in emails to administrators, acknowledged that “mold can cause respiratory irritation that may increase susceptibility of any viral infection.”
“Students were at greater risk for adverse health consequences because the university also failed to disclose, test, clean using proper practices, and certify that Elkton Hall was free of mold,” Ian Paregol told The Post. “We see all of these aspects as demonstrating a reckless pattern of disregard for the health and safety of staff and students, where the university has placed its own public relations needs ahead of the students’ health.”
Paregol, who is weighing whether to file a lawsuit in coming weeks, has called for the resignation or termination of Loh, the U-Md. president. A board of regents spokesman recently said the board is not considering the employment status of Loh, who is planning to step down in 2020.
The university in its statement Thursday said it “remains committed to transparency — and student safety above all — in the handling of mold and adenovirus on our campus. Transparency has been demonstrated through legislative testimony, briefings to our Board of Regents, and real-time publishing of all actions and communications on mold and adenovirus throughout the fall. In addition, the university has made public the external review by medical experts of our response to adenovirus, and the findings support the university’s approach.”
Adenovirus, unlike some other infectious diseases such as measles, is not governed by mandatory state or federal reporting requirements. Several public health officials advised U-Md. it was not necessary to disclose the outbreak. Ultimately, college leaders had the authority to decide when and how to share information about adenovirus with students.
University officials discussed but decided against notifying students with compromised immune systems and residents living in Elkton Hall, according to records reviewed by The Post.
Campus leaders waited until Nov. 19 — the day after Paregol’s death — to acknowledge the virus was present on campus and took an additional day to disclose that a student had died from adenovirus. They say they sent an email to the campus communicating that a student had been diagnosed with adenovirus 7 — a strain that can result in severe infection – after they received authorization from state health officials to release the information.
“It should not take the death of a student for the university to alert families about an illness spreading through campus, whether it is a common cold or meningitis like the university saw in 2014,” Hogan wrote in his letter to the board of regents. “Caution is sometimes understandable and called for, but common sense should never be overruled by bureaucratic protocol when lives are on the line.”
Amy Brittain, Sarah Larimer and Rick Maese contributed to this report.