How the U.C. Campuses Have Managed Covid-19

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California Today

How the U.C. Campuses Have Managed Covid-19

Thursday: The University of California’s new president, Dr. Michael Drake, discusses testing and sports.

By Jill Cowan and

Stanford played California in an empty stadium on Friday in Berkeley.
Credit…Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

Good morning.

Around the country, Covid-19 hospitalizations are spiking, with the number of patients surpassing 100,000 for the first time.

Though early lockdowns seemed to have helped California flatten its curve, in recent weeks, the state hasn’t escaped the surge, and more restrictions are still likely this week.

Still, as my colleague Shawn Hubler has reported, some colleges have managed to control infections while allowing students to live on campus and attend some classes in person.

She sent this dispatch about how the University of California has approached it:

Until Thanksgiving, when most students went home to complete fall classes remotely, the University of California, San Diego, had some 10,000 students in campus housing and about 25,000 students, researchers and staff members on campus in person — more people in one place daily than any other California university.

Infection rates at the school have been low, however. Less than one half of one percent of students on and around campus have tested positive for the virus since late September when fall classes started. In surrounding areas of San Diego County, by contrast, the test positivity rate has averaged around 6 percent, a campus spokeswoman said.

[Track coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in California.]

University officials credit aggressive testing, an app that expedites conventional contact tracing, outdoor classrooms and assiduous rules for masking and distancing on campus. But San Diego isn’t the U.C.’s only success story.

As the system’s 10 campuses prepared last week to break for the holiday and pivot to fully remote instruction, infection rates were lower than in their surrounding areas across the board, according to campus and community dashboards.

Nine campuses had test positivity rates of less than half of a percent for the week of Nov. 16-23, and U.C. Merced, which had no weekly breakdown, showed an overall test positivity rate since July of less than 2 percent, compared with more than 7 percent in the surrounding county.

We asked Dr. Michael Drake, the new U.C. president, last week about the trend. “What we’ve done, that seems to be working, is we’ve based our decisions on science,” said Dr. Drake, who is also a physician.

Credit…University of California

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation, lightly edited and condensed:

The University of California campuses have dealt in a variety of ways with the virus.

We meet every week and review what each of the campuses is doing. It’s a conversation that began before I was here. The campuses ranged in the number of students they’ve brought back, from a low of about 10 percent to a high of about 60 percent of the normal on-campus student population. That’s been determined by the circumstances in the county and then the type of rooms that are available.

What best practices are emerging?

We don’t have students in doubles, with some rare exceptions. Places with more dorms of the old type — with a long hallway and shared bathrooms — have fewer students than in newer construction with single rooms with bathrooms attached. We did intake screenings — they had to test, then sequester and then retest when they first came to campus. And there’s regular surveillance testing of asymptomatic people, with isolation, contact tracing and quarantine.

Any innovative approaches?

U.C. San Diego has a newer type of housing that allows them to have more students living on campus. They’re testing wastewater to look for evidence of virus, and then when they find it, they go back in and test everyone in the building. In a couple of cases, they’ve found virus in the water, tested everyone and then found asymptomatic cases. It works.

How are you handling parties, which have been a big source of outbreaks?

Most of our campuses start later. By the time September rolled around we saw what happened with campuses that started early. And we learned from that. Our students are thoughtful, intelligent adults interested in furthering their educations, and they want to do what it takes to be safe.

Yes, but what about off-campus fraternity and sorority houses?

We’ve messaged actively with those students and offer them testing on a frequent basis. And yes, students living on campus do have a lower test positivity rate.

[Read a conversation with Jennifer Doudna, a Nobel Laureate, whose lab ramped up testing at U.C. Berkeley.]

Sports have caused outbreaks, too.

Yeah, I’m concerned about sports. I’m concerned about fans at sporting events. But we’ve also seen teams who’ve been able to play safely. I think basketball is going to be a challenge.

What will the spring semester look like?

It remains to be seen how the vaccines will be deployed, but our first mantra is safety. When students come back to campus, they’ll have the same test-sequester-retest screening. And we’re assessing the appropriate number of students to have on campus now.

Do you see any changes that will continue beyond this crisis?

The chancellors and I get together once a week virtually. It used to be once a month when everybody had to fly to the meeting. Now we meet on a Zoom call and I think we connect better that way. Also, in our health system, telemedicine visits are much, much higher than before the pandemic. I think that will continue to improve.

[Read more about how colleges have used extensive testing to suppress the spread of the virus.]

How much has the pandemic cost the University of California so far?

We and others across the country have had massive costs, both in what we’re doing to keep students safe and in shifting to remote learning. Including the health system, those costs for us are north of $2.7 billion so far. We received some assistance from the CARES Act and that made a real difference. But it has been extraordinarily challenging. We hope that future relief is at hand.

(This article is part of the California Today newsletter. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox.)


Credit…Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

On Wednesday evening, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said in a statement that a staff member had tested positive for the coronavirus. The statement said the office’s director of operations started the protocol for a positive test in a state agency, contact tracing and sending those who may have come in contact with the staff member home to quarantine.

The staffer didn’t come into contact with the governor or his family, though, since they’re already in quarantine.

If you missed it, the governor’s family went into quarantine last week. [The New York Times]

  • Roughly 93,000 people signed up for the state’s health corps, aimed at providing a backstop as hospitals and their staffs continued to scramble. But all told, just 900 workers are ready to deploy. [The Sacramento Bee]

  • Community organizations and families sued the state, saying that Black and Latino students haven’t been provided free and equal access to education as guaranteed by the State Constitution. [The New York Times]

  • A judge ruled that Los Angeles County public health officials must show scientific evidence supporting the closure of outdoor dining. [The Los Angeles Times]

  • The conservative Supreme Court means that California’s contested restrictions on gatherings for church services are at risk. [CalMatters]

  • LeBron James signed a two-year, $85 million contract extension with the Lakers. [ESPN]


California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: [email protected]. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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