UC President Michael Drake promised the UC system would play a role in helping the country recover from the pandemic.
Drake’s focus on students’ safety has been laudable, and his efforts to update the UC system on any pandemic news has been commendable. A few UC campuses have developed innovative ways to detect COVID-19. But to date, the UC system’s effort against the pandemic has been underwhelming.
The website Successful Student, which produces rankings on the quality of universities, published a list of “The Best Universities Solving the Coronavirus Pandemic”; no UC campus made the list.
An educational system that controls more than 12,257 active inventions, is responsible for producing 75% of California’s life science PhDs, that has more than 200 National Academy of Medicine members since 1970, that educates about half the state’s medical students and residents and that employs 68 Nobel laureates can and should do more.
Now is the time to make a grander contribution that epitomizes the strength of California’s public academic institutions. To utilize the resources of California’s third-largest employer, Drake must lead a systemwide coordination to transform all 10 campuses into mass COVID-19 vaccination sites when supplies become available.
How would this work?
There are a number of UC campuses that are beginning to administer vaccines based on California’s Three Phased Planning Approach. While this is a step in the right direction, the UC system should pilot a program that expands distribution immediately into campus communities — vaccination should be expanded to all international students, all staff, and all faculty regardless of age. Distribution efforts should also include local campus businesses, alumni and alumni family members.
Currently, many campuses are devising their own vaccine distribution plans. While parts of the vaccine rollout process have been a systemwide effort, there can be more efforts to synchronize distribution. Drake should bring the campuses together to share intellectual resources and supplies. Drake should hold regular meetings with the heads of each campus vaccine distribution program to collectively develop best practices and to identify any campus struggling with the distribution process.
The UC system is certainly equipped to design a COVID-19 vaccine distribution framework. It is home to two of the top American public health programs and boasts some of the nation’s best medical schools.
To coordinate and schedule vaccinations, existing resources can be used. The UC system and each of its campuses have digital networks that allow students to sign up for classes, housing, financial aid plans and meal plans. A vaccine scheduling program can be built on similar platforms.
Many health leaders across California have raised concerns about the management of vaccine sites in our state. UC campuses already have experience administering vaccines.
Even more importantly, UC campuses have the proper storage facilities to maintain COVID-19 doses at the right temperature — a requirement to be approved as a vaccination site.
UC vaccination sites could also help address the ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in health care that have become apparent during the pandemic.
The spread of COVID-19 highlighted an open secret: Low-income communities, in particular Black and brown families, receive less adequate medical care than their peers. These public health inequities are especially glaring in urban areas, such as the Bay Area and greater Los Angeles, which are home to three UC campuses.
Many in the UC system come from these communities hit hardest by COVID-19. Of the 285,216 UC system students, 40% of students are from underrepresented groups, 40% are from low-income families and another 44% are first-generation students.
Providing the vaccine to the UC system alumni network would also expand coverage to a broader group. The UC system’s 2 million alumni are a diverse network ranging in age, professional background and income level.
As it stands, the plan is to initially administer the vaccine to those over 65, those in medical focused positions and those who are at a higher risk of exposure — intended to provide the limited supply of vaccines to those most at risk. But even with these constraints, the UC system can do more to protect the most vulnerable. Dispersing vaccines through the entire UC system immediately, including campus communities and the alumni network, ensures underserved areas receive better and faster protection from COVID-19 while addressing inequities in care.
The UC system’s absence from this moment is historically abnormal. Taking on seismic endeavors is in the DNA of the UC system, whether it be spearheading the recovery efforts of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake or leading the free speech movement.
We are living in an equally daunting moment, and the United States’ largest public academic institution should step up. As a former student, staff member and current president of the UC System, Drake understands his institution’s power beyond the classroom. He must remember the monumental work the UC system is capable of accomplishing and do its part in taming this pandemic.
Shounak Bagchi is a sustainable finance consultant, freelance writer and proud UC Berkeley alumnus