UMD followed protocol before Olivia Paregol’s death — but that isn’t enough

University of Maryland student Olivia Paregol. She died Nov. 18 after contracting adenovirus (Photo courtesy of Ian Paregol).

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

Last November, the University of Maryland community was rocked by the death of Olivia Paregol. The freshman criminology and criminal justice major died after contracting a serious strain of adenovirus, a virus that ultimately sickened 40 other students on the campus. This November, an independent report released just before the one-year anniversary of Paregol’s death appeared to absolve the university of any wrongdoing, at least in the eyes of this university’s administration and the Board of Regents.

But the belief that this university has been absolved in Paregol’s death doesn’t extend much further than the officials who conducted the report. In an email to students, university President Wallace Loh stated that the report “unanimously found that university employees prioritized student health and safety above all else.” The actual students and families who were affected by the adenovirus debacle are still in pain and mourning over Paregol’s death. The lack of concern and responsibility from this university demonstrates a dismissal of student safety, and it does little to prevent future harm.

Not much has been done in the year following the adenovirus outbreak at this university until this report came out, which stated that the university followed “state, federal and campus protocols,” but fell short in its interdepartmental communications. According to the report, the University Health Center dealt with the adenovirus outbreak while Residential Facilities focused on containing the spread of mold in the dorms. 

However, the surge of mold in dorms affected people whose immune systems were already compromised, and those people were then further at risk of contracting adenovirus. (Mold does not cause adenovirus, but it can increase susceptibility to viral infections.) The university did not quickly communicate to its students the possible health risks they faced, and, as the report documented, it failed to connect its own departments that were dealing with each issue separately. 

If the health center had been more publicly forthcoming about the adenovirus outbreak, Paregol’s doctors could have known sooner what to test and treat Paregol for. When she was hospitalized in November of last year, she was tested for almost everything except adenovirus: influenza, respiratory syncytial virus, hepatitis and bacterial blood infections. By the time then-health center director David McBride notified Paregol’s father on Nov. 13 that there were reports of adenovirus on campus, it was too late. Paregol died just five days later, after being treated with a host of antibiotics directed at pneumonia.  

The panel did not see poor communication as enough to disqualify the university from “complying” with protocol, but whatever happened was enough for several students to become sick with adenovirus and for one student to die. 

While the report acknowledged that the university did follow the regulations of informing students of the health dangers present on campus, it also recommended the university put someone in place to lead crisis communication and “review the roles and responsibilities” of employees during a crisis. Both of these suggestions seem as if they should have been obvious from the beginning, and should not be suggestions only brought up in response to this crisis.

This university doesn’t just need more training or another employee to clean up its mess. What would actually help prevent another tragedy at this university? The university’s taking stronger, more timely ownership of its mistakes, and its dedication to both learning from its faults and aiming to address them in meaningful ways. 

The report suggested that this university did not have a “mature level” of emergency management, and that this university should “err on the side of activation” of emergency plans instead of caution. Creating this culture of maturity and emergency response activation through transparency and heightened communication is imperative for creating sincere change. 

It is this university’s job to protect its students, not to simply follow the bare minimum of communication and health protocols. Hiding behind bureaucracy and reports, while avoiding responsibility for its actions, is a poor way of showing students that their school actually cares about them.

Following protocol didn’t save Olivia Paregol’s life. But taking responsibility for its mistakes might just save another student the next time there’s a health crisis on this campus.

Maya Rosenberg is a sophomore journalism and public policy major. She can be reached at maya.b.rosenberg@gmail.com.

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