UC Berkeley faculty discusses vaccine concerns, fall COVID-19 testing

photo of Sather Gate with a large crowd
Amanda Ramirez/Senior Staff
Tuesday’s Campus Conversation panel addressed issues concerning in-person fall reopening and vaccine efficacy. Campus safety measures and COVID-19 testing policies were brought up as well.

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As UC Berkeley prepares for an in-person fall reopening, a panel of campus faculty and staff addressed questions and concerns regarding a safe return to work during a Campus Conversation on Tuesday.

The discussion began with a timeline of summer reopening for campus staff, which will begin July 12, and an overview of declining Bay Area COVID-19 infection and hospitalization rates. The panelists also explored topics including vaccine efficacy and requirements, campus safety measures, evolving campus COVID-19 testing policies and more.

“The biggest question mark in my mind by far is how many people will arrive in the fall vaccinated,” said Guy Nicolette, assistant vice chancellor for University Health Services, during the event.

Nicolette added that campus plans may change depending on the number of students and staff who remain unvaccinated come fall.

Upon August reentry, all students will be tested for COVID-19, whether vaccinated or not, according to Nicolette. Unvaccinated students will then self-sequester for five days, after which they will be tested once again. They will continue being tested on a weekly basis until they are vaccinated.

Exceptions will be made for those with religious restrictions or medical concerns, according to Eugene Whitlock, assistant vice chancellor of human resources.

After the initial testing period, a random sampling of up to 3% of the campus population will likely be chosen each week to receive a COVID-19 test, Nicolette added.

“We’re looking for breakthrough infections,” Nicolette said. “Every positive is being sequenced so we can understand the impact of any variants.”

Arthur Reingold, campus chair of the division of epidemiology, added that the three vaccines available in the United States have all proven effective against COVID-19 variants.

Reingold said he expects the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to receive full Food and Drug Administration approval by the end of the summer, in which case vaccinations may become mandatory. In the meantime, since UC Berkeley is a workplace and must follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines, social distancing and masking will remain in effect, according to Nicolette.

Campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof, the event moderator, went on to ask the panelists clarifying questions about vaccine safety, the possibility of COVID-19 transmission while vaccinated and general concerns regarding the pandemic.

“We’ve spent the past year and a couple of months telling people to be afraid, and it feels like almost on a dime, we’re saying, ‘It’s OK. Vaccinate yourself, take off your mask and act as if nothing had happened,’ ” Whitlock said during the event.

In response to a question regarding long-term vaccine side effects, both Reingold and Nicolette said although the three vaccines currently available in the United States might cause minor side effects such as headaches, there is no evidence that long-term effects will surface, and that vaccination is far safer than COVID-19 exposure.

Reingold also said while it is unlikely for a vaccinated individual to contract COVID-19, if this does occur, the individual will have very little virus present in their respiratory secretions and will pose a very low risk of passing the virus on to anyone else. As such, Whitlock said employees on campus should not be overly concerned about contracting the virus if they are vaccinated.

“It’s OK to be afraid, but we can still move forward even though we are afraid; it’s just going to take time,” Whitlock said during the event. “Between now and July 12, all of us are going to feel differently about this perception of risk.”

Contact Anishi Patel at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @anishipatel.