UC Berkeley students and faculty discuss changing COVID-19 restrictions

Photo of COVID-19 testing site
Gavin Sagastume/Staff
Despite Berkeley's high vaccination rates and low COVID-19 case counts, cases of a new subvariant of omicron are currently increasing.

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UC Berkeley recently relaxed COVID-19 restrictions due to a decrease in cases, seen in the elimination of surveillance testing and relaxed mask requirements in campus buildings regardless of vaccination status. 

Students and Berkeley city officials are optimistic regarding future semesters and the modification of public health mandates, but acknowledge the future of the pandemic is still uncertain. Individuals must “be ready to pivot very quickly,” according to infectious diseases expert and campus public health professor emeritus John Swartzberg.

“COVID-19 continues to play a significant role in the global and local public health landscape,” said ASUC Academic Affairs Vice President James Weichert in an email. “We risk repeating past mistakes if we, as a country, do not go into the coming fall and winter with improved vaccination rates and continue to take necessary precautions.”

Following the return of students after spring break, masks were no longer required in campus buildings, including lecture halls, libraries and dining facilities. However, University Health Services, or UHS, still strongly recommended students get a PCR test upon returning to campus.

However, according to Swartzberg, surveillance testing does not provide students and faculty a significant layer of protection due to the high rates of vaccinated and boosted UC Berkeley community members. He added it is difficult for campus to facilitate testing on such a large scale. As a result, campus recently announced the Recreational Sports Facility will no longer provide surveillance testing starting May 6.

“The risks for Berkeley students are small for a few reasons,” Swartzberg said. “Almost everyone is vaccinated. The chances of someone having COVID who decides to come to campus and the possibility they could spread it to people sitting close to them, because of vaccination, is small.”

Berkeley has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, resulting in lower case rates and hospitalizations, according to Mayor Jesse Arreguín. However, cases of a new subvariant of omicron, BA.2, are currently increasing. BA.2 is 30% more contagious than the original, he noted.

Although cases are not expected to rise to a similar severity to winter rates, the spread of BA.2 is a reminder to students and Berkeley residents to stay vigilant, according to Arreguín. He does not expect new restrictions to be put in place, but still strongly encourages people to wear masks, even in settings where it is optional.

Weichert added the pandemic cannot be considered “behind us.”

“Our current vaccination levels alone cannot be our only safeguard against future outbreaks, as outbreaks over this past year have shown,” Weichert said in the email. “The campus must continue to regularly monitor the spread of COVID internationally, nationally, and on campus.”

Contact Anoushka Jasuja at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @anoushkajasuja.