Health and Safety on Study Abroad Program in Cuba
As of April 6, 2022, Cuba no longer requires a negative COVID test or proof of vaccination to enter the country. However, visitors may be randomly selected for testing at the airport. Full vaccination is of course strongly encouraged. As of March 2023, the world-renowned Cuban medical system has achieved the highest vaccination rate in the world, with nearly four doses administered per person. These vaccines were developed in-country and – contrary to the price gouging of the for-profit pharmaceutical industry – are made readily accessible to the world’s poor. Cuban vaccines are therefore widespread in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
As of April 13, 2023, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) rates Cuba at Level 1: “Practice usual precautions.”
Here are some of the changes to health and safety that we have made since we resumed study abroad programs in 2021:
- Homestays | All homestay families are fully vaccinated. Our homestays have developed protocols to keep their homes safe, including taking shoes off before entering, washing hands with soap and water when arriving home, using masks when in crowded areas, disinfecting and cleaning the house daily, and following social distancing guidelines. Students must abide by these guidelines in order to participate in the program. As per Cuban public health guidelines, any student who present symptoms will be tested for COVID, must mask at all time, and must remain in their homestay until testing negative and ceasing to present symptoms.
- University Setting | Students take classes at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences. The university provides a classroom that is only used for our program and a restroom only used by students and staff participating in our program. We will be disinfecting the classroom and bathroom twice a day to minimize contamination. Students will not be allowed to bring visitors into these spaces.
- Transportation | The program will provide transportation for all activities. The program will organize visits to the city that have been left to students’ own exploration in the past. If students wish to travel through the city on public transportation during their free time, they are required to use a mask while doing so.
- Activities | All pre-pandemic educational and extra-curricular activities have now resumed. Should any student present symptoms, they will not be allowed to participate and must remain at home. All students will be required to wear masks during activities when adequate social distancing is not possible.
COVID Testing and Symptoms
Students may be tested for COVID at the airport on their arrival to Cuba as part of mandatory random testing. If students present symptoms, they will be taken to the Cira García Hospital (4.5km from the home-stay community) for testing and treatment. Students will either quarantine at the hospital or an apartment in their home-stay community. Students will need to be prepared to isolate themselves at the apartment or the hospital if they become ill with COVID. In case of infection, the program will make provisions for students to maintain their studies in isolation.
AUSM will continue to monitor the situation in Cuba and will communicate all changes to prospective students.
General Health and Safety
The health and safety of Study Abroad participants is the highest priority for AUSM. Staff works closely with local partners to assess current health concerns and safety issues, and we adapt quickly to changing political conditions and unfolding events.
In general, Cuba is considered one of the safest countries in the world. Violent crimes are rare. The most common crimes confronted by students involve pickpocketing. Cuba has one of the most developed and accessible healthcare systems on the planet. There is one doctor for every 400 Cubans, and through obligatory insurance coverage study abroad students enjoy access to world-class medical attention. Nevertheless, we live by the adage “hope for the best and plan for the worst.” We take the safety of our students very seriously, and our record over the past 13 years is evidence – no deaths and no serious injuries.
Our health and safety protocol begins with homestay families. Our families are members of a cooperative dedicated exclusively to hosting AUSM students. They receive training in health and safety practices specific to visiting US students.
The most common health care problems involve “Turismo,” a common digestive reaction to strange foods and bacteria. In most cases, diarrhea, upset stomach, and/or vomiting are the most severe symptoms, and they generally pass within 24 to 48 hours. While most students visiting Cuba for the first time will have a bout of Turismo, it is also usually the case that one episode will “vaccinate” students against similar experiences. Pepto Bismol is generally the recommended treatment. Students should avoid tap water and street foods, which are generally the cause of Turismo. Students should also wash their hands with soap and water several times a day.
In case of more serious illness, the health care protocol starts with a visit to the family doctor, generally located within four blocks of the homestay. More serious cases are referred to the neighborhood clinic, and the most serious cases are referred to a regional hospital or specialty care center. Homestay family members and/or staff always accompany students to clinic and hospital visits. In any crisis that escalates to a hospital, US families are notified immediately, no matter the time of day. In cases that end in a neighborhood clinic or with the family doctor, US families are notified by the student.
Sexual assault is very rare in Cuba. In the unlikely case of sexual assault, staff provides immediate counseling. Unless the victim exhibits serious physical injuries or an uncontrollable psychological reaction, the care protocol options are discussed with the victim regarding her/his preferences for police intervention and the extent of medical attention. Post-event counseling and housing are guided by the victim’s desires. By US law, sexual assaults are immediately reported to the student’s home institution.
Cuba is in the middle of the Caribbean and is occasionally subject to hurricanes. Safety protocols on the island are very well-designed and implementation is usually flawless, in the sense that hurricane-related deaths are unusual. In this sense, students are generally much safer during a hurricane passing over Cuba than they would be in many parts of the US. Students’ homestays are located more than a mile inland and are not subject to high waves or flooding. In the case of a hurricane, students follow neighborhood protocols established by the local and national government and are instructed to carefully follow the lead of staff and/or home-stay families.
In the unlikely case of political violence or an extreme natural disaster, home-stays are located 15 minutes from the international airport in Havana. The Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences has its own transportation and is a State institution, which means quick access to government authorities who can arrange for emergency evacuation.
Student schedules are chock-full of academic classes, Spanish instruction, meetings with Cuban organizations and institutions, and visits to museums and cultural sites, leaving little time to engage in risky behavior. Moreover, staff thoroughly orient students on health and safety measures upon arrival and monitor their safety through weekly group check-ins, weekly individual office hours, their daily interactions with students, and constant contact with homestay families. Nonetheless, some students will occasionally find time to get into trouble. Excessive alcohol consumption is the greatest risk factor in most study abroad programs, and Cuba is no exception. We therefore continuously emphasize, beginning in our first orientation session, that students are not only responsible to themselves, but also to their home communities, their homestay families, AUSM, and the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences. We strictly prohibit excessive alcohol consumption or the use of any illegal drugs (which are almost impossible to find in Cuba in any case). Cases of excessive alcohol consumption are dealt with by counseling and a warning the first time, and expulsion from the program without the possibility of any refund of program fees the second time.
Should you have any questions about safety, health, or crisis management, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org