Campus COVID-19 policies need some mending

CAMPUS AFFAIRS: UC Berkeley pandemic policies rely too heavily on high vaccination rates and self-directed testing.

Illustration about Covid policy
Amanda Tsang/Staff

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This fall, UC Berkeley has largely weathered the flood of low vaccination rate fall-out that drenched much of the country. This does not mean, however, that campus’ COVID-19 outbreak defenses are impermeable. After The Daily Californian had the opportunity to sit down with UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, it became clear that a reliance on high vaccination rates and student self-responsibility is largely the foundation upon which its pandemic-related policies seem to be constructed. But this foundation is vulnerable to COVID-19 cases seeping through the cracks.

It’s unfair and unrealistic to expect busy students to navigate the nuances of pandemic safety and responsibility without clear direction from UC Berkeley. This is especially true considering University Health Services, or UHS, spokespeople admitted campus COVID-19 testing was insufficient for students living in congregate housing. They also noted that because not all students are tested on campus, COVID-19 cases go unaccounted for, making contact tracing more difficult.

Due to limited testing capacity and high vaccination rates, UC Berkeley is focusing on symptomatic testing and strong contact tracing over regular mandated surveillance testing, according to campus spokespeople.

Symptomatic and exposure testing on campus is easy to schedule and efficient, but isn’t accessible to too many students. Those who don’t have the Berkeley Health Insurance Plan, or SHIP, must pay up to $150 to access these testing resources. While some insurance carriers will reimburse this expense, requiring students to front this money is an enormous barrier for many and may be discouraging, especially since campus recommends symptomatic or exposed individuals get tested  more than once.

Campus purports to take contact tracing seriously, yet there is no requirement for students who have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19 be tested.

UC Berkeley spokespeople said campus is also focusing its efforts on testing community members who aren’t fully vaccinated. Campus maintains that they are required to be tested weekly but are doing little, if anything, to enforce this — the mid-October compliance rate was only 60%.

With spring semester planned to be fully in-person, campus must address these gaps in its policies now. Students deserve to know the risks involved with returning to lectures packed with hundreds of attendees sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. UC Berkeley is justified in celebrating its high vaccination rates and relatively low case numbers, but cannot gloss over and ignore discomforting realities.

After winter break, students will be reconvening from locations across the country and world, many of which have lower vaccination rates than campus’ 98% for students. Even with mandated self-sequestering for students living in on-campus housing in the fall, UC Berkeley saw a spike in COVID-19 cases in the weeks following the beginning of the semester. Despite this, campus has not expressed plans to require a self-sequestering period at the start of the spring semester.

Campus continues to claim that its accordance with CDC guidelines is enough to keep students, staff and city of Berkeley community members safe. But the Daily Cal, as well as members of the  student body, have been vocal about wanting more support from UC Berkeley in the wake of a deluge of changing COVID-19 protocols and norms. We are tired of not feeling heard and will continue to ask for more transparency and clearer and safer protocols.

Many students are excited about the prospect of spring semester being fully in person — campus and students must work together to make this a safe and healthy reality.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the fall 2021 opinion editor, Emily Hom.