The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Editorials

April 2, 2014

More transparency at Pitt-Johnstown | University does not exist in a bubble

JOHNSTOWN — Administrators at Pitt-Johnstown faced a daunting task this past weekend – trying to alert almost 3,000 students and the public of a viral outbreak on campus.

It all began Friday, when about 10 students came down with symptoms similar to a stomach virus.

Granted, a handful of students campuswide with the same symptoms should not be cause for alarm. But when the university found out that more students had the same signs (vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps and fever), the university launched an investigation.

The state Department of Health was notified, and responded by issuing UPJ five test kits. The kits would help the university either verify or deny the presence of a norovirus.

The university also sent emails to students, staff and faculty notifying them of the possibility of an outbreak and telling them of preventive steps to take to stay healthy. The emails were targeted to students who lived in close proximity to those who were sick – the group the university believed was at greatest risk to either contact or spread the illness.

“We are trying to prevent students from getting into groups where it can be spread,” Robert Knipple, UPJ’s executive director of community relations, told reporter Randy Griffith for a story in Saturday’s editions.

At that point, administrators believed they had taken all necessary precautions to protect the student population.

But that action apparently backfired Saturday morning when school chiefs learned that the virus could be spreading through food sources.

To its credit, the school quickly halted all food services, threw out opened or prepared food and began disinfecting all food preparation and dining areas.

“We are doing a complete sanitation of dining facilities and any large meeting space because we don’t know how it originated,” Knipple said.

The school also took the bold step of canceling many previously scheduled social activities.

On Saturday and Sunday, the school issued updates through social media of the steps it was taking to combat the outbreak. School officials also decided to resume classes on Monday.

However, the campus is not out of the woods yet. One health professional said that the situation could linger until the end of the month.

We commend Pitt-Johns-town for recognizing how quickly the situation could have gotten out of hand. In all, 115 students had reported symptoms consistent with norovirus to the school’s Office of Health Services.

But we also wonder if, instead of just alerting what it considered at-risk students, the school should have immediately issued a campuswide alert to all students, faculty and staff of the apparent illness and steps to take to prevent infection.

Publishing notification on its website is, in our opinion, only a whisper when we believe a shout to the entire Greater Johnstown community was necessary. The outbreak could have multiplied drastically if it had been spread from the campus to the public.

And while we’re on the topic of transparency, we believe Pitt-Johnstown should be more forthcoming with police matters that, although they happen on campus, could have implications throughout the community. Spreading the news to all available outlets, not just the UPJ website, would go a long way toward easing the public’s concerns and offering peace of mind.

Perhaps food for thought for the future.

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