Maryland students, parents complain university hasn't done enough to combat mold, adenovirus

As the University of Maryland, College Park faces down back-to-back health crises, students and parents are complaining that the institution hasn’t been aggressive enough to stem the spread of mold and disease on campus.

After mold sickened students and forced the evacuation of a dorm early in the semester, a surge of adenovirus struck the campus, infecting at least nine students and killing one. Students and parents say they’re frustrated and frightened.

“I feel like we’re getting hit over and over again,” said Rohini Nambiar, vice president of student affairs for the university’s Student Government Association. “I’ve been hearing concerns from other students just saying: Can this happen to them?”

Health problems began early in the semester for students like Kristian Moller, an 18-year-old freshman, who began coughing about three weeks after moving into Easton Hall. By mid-November, he was hospitalized at CalvertHealth Medical Center with pneumonia.

“It just started getting worse and worse,” he said.

At his request, the university cleaned his room for mold. He noticed that his condition improved when he left campus, he said.

His father, Kim Moller, worried that the university wasn’t taking strong enough measures to keep students well.

“There should be notices and warnings going out to parents before our kids go in: ‘If you have any sort of problems — no, these dorms can be deadly,’ ” Kim Moller said. “They do not have in mind the best interests of the kids.”

A university spokeswoman, Katie Lawson, said that every decision related to mold cleanup and student relocation “was driven first and foremost by safety.”

After mold was reported in Elkton Hall, she said, “the university worked quickly to relocate students and hired independent contractors to remediate.”

Students in the freshman dorm were relocated to a hotel as crews deep-cleaned their rooms. Remediation efforts wrapped up at Elkton Hall by Oct. 10, according to the university, and the Department of Residential Facilities is responding individually to isolated reports of mold.

The university hired Building Dynamics LLC to examine the cause of the mold at Elkton Hall and the effectiveness of the university’s remediation. The firm concluded the university will need to improve the HVAC system in Elkton Hall to keep humidity levels lower, said Ed Light, president of Building Dynamics.

“They made some improvements, but according to our testing it’s not going be enough if next summer we have bad conditions again,” Light said.

The university’s residential facilities department monitors the temperature and humidity of all residence halls and conducts spot inspections as part of service calls, according to Lawson.

But Kim Moller said he wants to see more preventive actions across the university’s older dorms. He questioned why there wasn’t continuing environmental testing to monitor mold levels in dorms.

“They should be all over testing those dorms to make sure that they’re safe for everybody. Why that isn’t being done is beyond me,” Kim Moller said. “If you were a landlord and you rented out a mold-infested house, you would have a lot of liability. And I just don’t understand why the university gets off scot-free.”

Kristian Moller said he felt that the university didn’t take his health seriously. Being sick affected his ability to concentrate, and his grades suffered, he said.

“When I went to the health center, they didn’t really do a whole lot,” Kristian Moller said. “They just took my symptoms and gave me something to ease my stomach and they sent me back.”

While mold does not cause adenovirus, it can exacerbate respiratory conditions such as pneumonia and bronchitis, illnesses that can be contracted as a result of adenovirus.

The virus, which has more than 50 strains, can cause symptoms ranging from mild colds to severe illnesses, including intestinal infections and neurological complications. Adenovirus can produce more serious symptoms in people with weakened immune systems.

Kristian Moller said he felt the university began to take student health concerns more seriously after Olivia Paregol, an 18-year-old freshman from Howard County, died of complications from adenovirus Nov. 18. Paregol had a compromised immune system because of medication she took to treat Crohn’s disease, according to her father.

Since Paregol’s death, the university health center has sent multiple letters to students warning them of the symptoms and risks of adenovirus, and updating them on additional confirmed cases.

Nambiar, a senior public health science major, said she was pleased to hear those updates coming “from the source.”

Still, she said, she wanted to see the university take more proactive measures to prevent the spread of potentially serious illnesses.

“It’s really difficult when you have a campus as big as ours, but I also do not think that is an excuse,” Nambiar said.

Other colleges are taking heed of the adenovirus risk.

“We have advised our physicians and nurse practitioners to have a lower bar for suspicion for ordering diagnostic testing for adenovirus as we were made aware of the cases at College Park,” said Alexandra Morrel, a nurse practitioner manager at the Student Health & Wellness Center at the Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus, in a statement. Hopkins has reported no adenovirus outbreaks.

In College Park, Nambiar said she wanted to know what was being done to prevent more student deaths as adenovirus spreads.

“I would definitely like to see kind of how this happened,” Nambiar said. “One, how did this happen? But two, how can we prevent this from happening again because that’s the real key to this entire thing.”

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