That’s how long officials at the University of Maryland sat with knowledge that the highly contagious adenovirus was on the campus.
That’s how long they had to think about what might be on the doorknobs or in the air around them and to obsess, if they wanted, about washing their hands so they wouldn’t catch the virus and bring it home to their families.
That’s how long they kept critical information to themselves, knowing the students who had been entrusted to them were getting sick — some to the point of hospitalization.
This week, the family of 18-year-old Olivia Paregol, who died during the outbreak, filed a notice of claim against the university. Her father, Ian Paregol, told The Washington Post that the family hopes to talk with university officials and will decide in coming weeks whether to sue.
Regardless of whether a lawsuit goes forward, the only correct response from the university would be this: Put in place safeguards that guarantee this will never happen again.
Paregol’s death against the backdrop of what the university knew and when it knew it — the details of which we know only because of diligent research and reporting by my colleagues — is horrifying and heartbreaking. But other students remain at the school.
What assurance do they have that the university will put their well-being before its own image the next time a threat emerges?
What assurance do they have that they won’t have to sit in the dark, unaware of a lurking danger, simply because officials decided they didn’t feel like sharing the light?
Paregol’s death occurred just months after the campus mourned another student, Jordan McNair, a 19-year-old football player who collapsed of heatstroke during a team workout. If he had been immersed in cold water and treated right away, he might have survived, experts have said. Instead, more than an hour passed before paramedics were called, and by the time the teenager arrived at a hospital, his temperature was 106 degrees.
That death alone should have been enough for the university to realize, and never forget, that delayed actions can be deadly.
That much was obvious even before the university shelled out more than $1.57 million for an investigation into the incident.
The story The Post published about the university’s response to the adenovirus outbreak was based on more than 100 interviews and thousands of pages of documents, including medical records, emails and text messages.
Taken together, they appear to show a disturbing disregard for student safety. Even after officials were made aware that the school might be in the middle of an outbreak of the virus, which has been linked to other deaths, students received a campuswide email that mentioned only the flu and hand, foot and mouth disease.
“This is no cause for alarm,” it read.
By then, according to the story, Olivia Paregol had been out of school for a week and had told her friends that she had “puked blood.”
Paregol, who was on medication for Crohn’s disease and had spent a semester sick from mold in her dorm room, had not been tested for the virus at that time. Her family learned there had been cases of it on campus, according to the story, only after the teenager ended up in a hospital and her father called a university official and pleaded, “I need some answers. I need to know what’s going on because she should not be this sick.”
Parents entrust their children to colleges and universities. They also pay a lot of money to those institutions. They should never have to beg for basic information about health concerns on campuses, and especially not over their children’s failing bodies.
On Nov. 13, tests confirmed Paregol had adenovirus. On Nov. 18, she died.
Finally, on Nov. 19, the university acknowledged the virus had made students sick.
After the Virginia Tech massacre — which saw a two-hour delay between an initial shooting and a campuswide notification that came shortly before the gunman killed 30 more people and then himself — universities across the nation adopted the practice of sending out alerts as soon as they receive reports of a possible shooter on campus. They should act just as swiftly when the threat is to student health. It costs nothing, and it recognizes their responsibility to all students, including those with compromised immune systems for whom the stakes of even a cold are higher.
Yet, so far, these are the types of responses that have come from University of Maryland administrators:
“I cannot speak to the medical care that Olivia received at emergency rooms or hospitals, or to whether or not an antiviral medication treatment could have saved her life,” University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh said in a statement to The Post. “We care tremendously about student health and well-being, and we offer our condolences to the Paregol family for this tragic loss.”
“We responded as quickly as we could,” Linda Clement, vice president for student affairs, told The Post.
That’s how long university officials have had since Paregol’s death to do something substantial about it.
That’s how long they have had to admonish the administrators who were most responsible for the delay and to put in place policies that would reassure students who remain on the campus that there won’t be a next time.
That’s how long they have had to publicly say, “We made the wrong call, and it had horrible consequences. We should have told students right away what we knew. But we will do what we ask of our students every day: We will learn. We will do better.”
University officials might be worried right now about a lawsuit. They should be more worried about their students.