Queen’s suspends all University-sponsored international travel

University will provide academic leniency due to illness

Dr. David Walker appointed as COVID-19 response lead at Queen's.
Credit: 
Journal File Photo
Dr. David Walker, former dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, was appointed as Special Advisor to the Principal on Planning and Preparation for COVID-19 on March 5. In the eight days since, Queen’s has moved quickly to put plans in place as coronavirus cases rise in Canada.
 
In the last two days, Queen’s has canceled all events and conferences for the Faculty of Health Science, a measure to protect health care workers, and suspended all University-sponsored international travel.
 
“It is almost inevitable that COVID-19 will come to our community at some point or another,” Walker said in a recent interview with The Journal. “It would be unreasonable to think Kingston and Queen’s will be immune.”
 
Along with being former dean, Walker is a professor of family and emergency medicine and policy studies, and he chaired the 2003 Ontario’s Expert Panel on SARS and Infectious Disease Control.
 
He now chairs two committees at Queen’s. One committee is an operational committee, which has been meeting every day since his appointment. The other is a stakeholder management group, which meets weekly and includes senior University leadership, faculty representatives, students, and local community members, including city officials. 
 
According to Walker, the committees also have sub-groups working on a number of related issues. One sub-group is dealing with housing, preparing for if students need to be isolated. Another sub-group is dealing with academic modifications, putting plans in place for if the term needs to be shortened, or exams altered.
 
Walker believes it’s important to understand the virus. “It is stealthy and relatively easy to catch, but only in close quarters,” he said. “It is not spread through air. It is a droplet spread.”
 
If you are experiencing symptoms such as fever, cough and breathing difficulty, Walker recommends staying home and self-isolating. Queen’s students should call the regional Public health network or Student Wellness Services if exposed to the virus or experiencing symptoms. For more information, Queen’s has added a COVID-19 page to its website with up-to-date information.
 
“Our job at Queen’s is to be prepared for a positive case. We are making plans by the hour for if and when that happens,” Walker said. “We are planning for every possible eventuality. We have plans for gathering and conferences.”
 
Walker stressed that currently, Kingston is at low risk. And Queen’s currently doesn’t plan on shutting down. “We need to continue operations to the extent we are safe,” Walker said.
 
He told The Journal that any decision to close campus or move classes online will be guided by Kingston Public Health, which will determine whether there’s community and person-to-person spread.
 
Walker believes it’s in Queen’s best interest not to be hasty when making alterations to academics. 
 
“Other universities have gone online overnight. I don’t understand how you can suddenly turn a class online. A whole course cannot become virtual overnight,” he said. “We are having a lot of discussion and will take action on how we instruct and evaluate students.” 
 
Special considerations will be given to Medical and Nursing students, who interact with the health care system.
 
Queen’s is also following University of Toronto’s lead in providing leniency for students missing class if they feel sick. 
 
“Requiring a doctor’s note seems counterintuitive,” Walker said. “If someone is flagged as suspicious for infection, Student Wellness and Public Health will be involved, and they will get an academic consideration note. We are going to be very permissive.” 
 
Another consideration Walker and the committees are tackling is how Queen’s interacts with the international community. As of Thursday, Principal Patrick Deane has suspended all University-sponsored international travel.
 
Advice for students on international exchange has gone out today, according to Walker. “We are not giving blanket recommendations. Situations are highly variable,” he said. “We recommend students discuss with an academic supervisor where they are.”
 
The University didn’t recommend all students immediately come home. 
 
“In some ways, staying put may be safer than travelling across the world to get home,” Walker pointed out. “If you do come home and get sick, you will be quarantined.” 
 
Ultimately, Walker believes students on exchange should evaluate based on their specific situation. “If you’re uncomfortable in your setting, come home and we will make academic arrangements,” he said. “It’s very much a personal decision. Do your own risk assessment.”
 
As for upcoming St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, Walker says students should make thoughtful and well-informed decisions. “The issue is not the fear that you or I may catch it, the fear is for the elderly and the frail, and protecting the healthcare system,” he said. 
 
He is concerned that students or guests who may unknowingly be infected could infect community members who are elderly or frail, which could be highly dangerous. 
 
Overloading the Kingston health care system is also a serious concern.
 
“We are desperately concerned about the hospital setting. All it would take is for one positive student going to the hospital due to alcohol poisoning or injury to infect an elderly patient or healthcare worker, and it would be a run-on effect that could not be managed,” Walker said. “If we have community spread on campus, we can do all kinds of things from home. Our health care sector cannot do that.”
 
Walker believes it’s up to individuals to make smart decisions and stay informed, while the University plans for all possible scenarios. “We will do everything we can to slow the march of the virus,” he said. “We are guided by the need to protect students.”
 

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