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Editorial: UCLA bungles response to campus measles outbreak, putting students at risk

By Editorial Board

May 1, 2019 11:01 p.m.

The county public health office calls and says your campus of more than 100,000 might be the site of infection for a disease that can result in pneumonia, brain damage, deafness and death.

So you do what all seasoned administrators would: pull out your phone, text students about self-quarantining and hope they don’t take you for a paranoid stranger.

Last week, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health identified UCLA and a host of other Los Angeles locations as exposure sites for the latest measles outbreak in California. Nearly five people have been diagnosed with the disease so far, including a UCLA student who visited Franz and Boelter Hall several times last month.

The department issued a quarantine order for unvaccinated individuals who may have been exposed to the disease when they visited the same locations as those who are infected. UCLA responded – but in a remarkably bungled fashion.

Students at large received no communication from the university, save for a measly email from Chancellor Gene Block, sent over 48 hours after initial reports of possible exposure at UCLA. Potentially unvaccinated students whose immunization records were either lost by or never submitted to UCLA Health were asked to self-quarantine through text messages and messages on health portals they rarely visit.

And amid all this, students were left in the dark about whether classes would stay put at the infection sites.

It’s almost as if administrators learned nothing from this campus’ previous emergencies.

The university’s outreach and communication efforts were mediocre at best. UCLA said in a statement that it didn’t issue a BruinAlert because it felt that would be inappropriate.

That’s right: Notifying students about the state of classes and infection of a deadly disease has somehow become inappropriate.

It gets worse, though. Students ordered to go into quarantine were informed via emails and Ashe Center secure messages. One student ignored messages sent April 23 from the university, and only discovered them the evening of April 24 – enough time to potentially infect dozens more.

On top of that, the university did little to ensure students who had agreed to quarantine themselves did indeed confine themselves. Quite the time to be making use of the honor system – especially when administrators had no means of knowing if those students were walking down to grab groceries or hit the gym. UCLA seemingly only began physically looking for students Friday, five days after the outbreak first broke.

The most egregious offenses were the confusing messages the university sent students who may have been exposed. Students were told in a text message from Maria Blandizzi, the dean of students, that they had to isolate themselves in their apartments, unless they have roommates – and also that they had to walk down to the Ashe Center to get a blood test if they didn’t have vaccination records.

That’s not just lazy – it’s also incredibly shoddy communication.

To its credit, UCLA cooperated with the county department of public health to comply with quarantine orders, and that synergy helped. Yet the issue here is university’s inability to keep students informed in emergencies and think well on its feet.

UCLA is making it through its third campus emergency in as many years. But its response system is still sick and showing no signs of getting better.

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