As the fall semester draws near and COVID-19 variants cast uncertainty on reopening plans, a virtual panel of UC Berkeley health experts addressed questions about what the changing COVID-19 landscape means for the campus community.
Monday’s discussion — part of the Campus Conversations series —was moderated by campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof and featured University Health Services, or UHS, Assistant Vice Chancellor Guy Nicolette, UHS medical director Anna Harte, campus chair of the division of epidemiology Arthur Reingold and campus clinical professor of infectious diseases and vaccinology John Swartzberg. The event began with candid thoughts on the current state of the pandemic.
“As the director of the CDC said, we currently have an epidemic, or pandemic if you will, among the unvaccinated,” Reingold said during the event. “We need to do an even better job communicating the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines and continue to achieve high levels of coverage.”
With about 80% to 85% of campus vaccinated so far, some fundamental plans such as in-person health services and classes are confirmed, according to Nicolette. However, there are still some “balls in the air” with regard to policy decisions.
Campus policy will leave room for faculty to weigh their own comfort returning to in-person classes, however, as personal situations vary. For example, while Reingold plans to return to teach in the classroom, Swartzberg noted he would rather avoid unnecessary risk and continue virtual instruction.
“In-person instruction is invaluable,” Nicolette said during the event. “We are trying to figure out a way to have some sort of personal risk assessment and tolerance and still have folks default to in-person instruction.”
Nicolette added that campus will continue to advocate for vaccinations and utilize masking, social distancing and other effective mitigation measures.
Harte plans to keep assessing the changing virus by continuing to conduct many COVID-19 tests. Many groups of people will be required to test including unvaccinated people, contacts of COVID-19 patients and anyone with respiratory symptoms.
“We’re essentially evolving to meet whatever the virus throws at us,” Harte said during the event. “I’m looking at this coming year to apply and continue to apply everything we have learned, to continue to evolve and pivot and change.”
Policies will rely on a “compassionate and community-minded” campus to follow vaccine and mask mandates, according to Nicolette. While this is dependent on the honor system, Nicolette added that campus has ways to ramp up enforcement if necessary.
The discussion ended with panelists emphasizing the importance of vaccines and looking to the future with a “cautious optimism.”
“Get vaccinated. We do lots of things but the most important thing everybody can do is just get vaccinated,” Swartzberg said during the event. “For a campus of this size — 60,000 people — I think we’ve done remarkably well. We’re going to open up this campus in two weeks.”