Maryland lawmakers on Tuesday heard arguments for a bill that would aim to improve colleges and universities’ responses to health outbreaks on their campuses — inspired in part by the adenovirus outbreak at the University of Maryland in 2018.
House Bill 187 — brought to the House Appropriations Committee by Del. Joseline Peña-Melnyk (D-21) — would require all public higher education institutions to annually submit an outbreak response plan to the state health department starting next year.
In a proposed amendment to the legislation, Peña-Melnyk requested that the bill’s name be changed to “Olivia’s Law.” The name would honor freshman Olivia Paregol, who died in fall 2018 after she contracted adenovirus, which sickened more than 40 students by the end of the semester.
University officials didn’t notify the campus community until 18 days after it knew about the outbreak — a situation that could be prevented in the future if the bill becomes law. The legislation would require a response plan with a process of “expediently notifying” students and their families, as well as faculty and staff, about outbreaks.
In November, an independent report found that though the university followed protocol, communication between departments could have been improved.
“The problem was that the University of Maryland did not give notice immediately,” Peña-Melnyk said.
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The bill requires each institution’s response plan to include protocol for isolating infected individuals, measures to notify the campus community and implementation of evidence-based response measures. Faculty members would be required to know how to implement these measures, and there must be a process for reporting an outbreak to “specific entities.”
There is currently no law requiring public higher education institutions implement outbreak response plans. And though Ian Paregol, Olivia’s father, acknowledged the bill doesn’t “set up an entire structure” for universities or the state to follow, he expects it to spur further changes.
“My hope is that as plans are submitted, the department of health will set up their own regulations as to what qualifies as a health emergency and what types of things need to be reported,” he told The Diamondback. “My hope is to have additional regulations put into place.”
Another proposed amendment includes eliminating the provision that the outbreak plan must be in place for life-threatening diseases only.
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After Peña-Melnyk spoke, Sue Esty, who serves as a senior adviser for the union that represents workers at this university, announced that Council 3 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ supported the bill.
Esty said that a number of university employees in 2018 were not given protective equipment when coming into contact with mold, which does not cause adenovirus but can weaken a person’s immune system. Esty requested that an amendment be added that would notify the workers’ union during an illness outbreak.
“The folks that work at College Park were also very vulnerable to the spread of contagious diseases, along with the students,” Esty said.
A separate bill, House Bill 7, would require the state Department of the Environment to “require periodic inspections for the presence of mold hazards and mold or moisture problems in each occupied public or nonpublic school facility” in the state.
Ian Paregol has long said that mold in Olivia’s dorm — Elkton Hall, which was hit hardest by a mold outbreak during the fall 2018 semester — made her more susceptible to adenovirus. Her immune system was already compromised due to medication she took for Crohn’s disease.
“Both of those pieces of legislation stem from that incident,” Paregol said.
In May, the Paregol family filed a notice of claim against the university under the Maryland Tort Claims Act, paving the way for a lawsuit.
The appropriations committee will later decide whether to amend the bill, in which case those amendments would be voted on the house floor before eventually passing the bill to the state senate.
“I hate to think that there has to be a legacy for my daughter,” Ian Paregol said. “But … hopefully that saves other kids’ lives.”