Ask Me Anything — Berkeley officials take coronavirus questions on Reddit

Wheeler Hall exterior

UC Berkeley administrators took questions this week from the UC Berkeley community about the campus’s response to coronavirus. (Photo by Alan Nyiri, courtesy of the Atkinson Photographic Archive)

UC Berkeley administrators answered questions from the campus community about the coronavirus in an Ask Me Anything on Reddit this week. Topics addressed ranged from travel safety to what would happen in the event of a coronavirus case on campus.

Here are a few excerpts, edited for length, from the AMA:

Question from Akhenatenaten: What will the administration do to ensure an equal academic opportunity to succeed for those who acquire the virus? How will they proceed, sooner rather than later, to protect all students equally from coronavirus?

Paul Alivisatos, executive vice chancellor and provost: There are many protocols that we have or are putting in place to protect our community, and they touch nearly every aspect of the campus. We are encouraging instructors to move classes online and facilitating this change. We are asking instructors to relax attendance rules. We are building guidelines for student travel. We are developing telecommuting guidelines for staff. We are weighing whether to hold large events on campus, with guidance from local health authorities. RSSP is creating contingency plans for what will happen if and when a campus community member tests positive for coronavirus. We have and will continue to communicate these issues in regular emails about the situation. Up-to-date information is also available here.

Ella Callow, director, disability access & compliance chief: Disabled students have a right to be safe and healthy, and get their education. The tools are in place right now to help facilitate this. If going to class is a risk for you due to coronavirus, go to your Disabled Students’ Program Specialist. Talk to them about amending your Letter of Accommodation to include that the class must be made accessible to you through the use of the Instructional Resilience resources available to professors and GSIs. If you haven’t used DSP services yet, go online and check them out here.


Question from 127-0-0-1_1: Will the administration enforce policies that allow people who highly suspect they have coronavirus to avoid large events without objectively harming their grade?

Guy Nicolette, assistant vice chancellor for University Health Services: If you highly suspect you have the virus — i.e. you have fever or cough/difficulty breathing and you have traveled to any area with sustained transmission within the two weeks before symptoms start or you have had contact with a proven case — you should call your healthcare provider (for faculty/staff) or the UHS Advice Line (for students) at 510-643-7197 immediately for advice. This does not necessarily mean you have the virus, but you should put on a mask and get assessed as soon as possible. Strict CDC guidelines determine who can be tested for coronavirus; these are updated regularly as the situation evolves.

Callow: The Cal messages that were sent out on March 2 and March 4 from the Provost and Chair of the Academic Senate address some of your concerns.


Question from sprucegoose11: Are there protocols being developed to deep-clean and disinfect classrooms, public spaces, campus shuttles to mitigate the spread of the virus?

Marc Fisher, vice chancellor for administration: The campus has indeed enhanced disinfection and cleaning procedures for common areas. We have expanded our day service to clean and disinfect touch points in public areas, restrooms, and entrances, (ie. door knobs, elevator buttons, water fountains).

We have installed hand sanitizer dispensing stations in high-traffic visible areas across campus, and especially entrances to buildings, though we want to underscore that frequent hand-washing can be more effective than hand sanitizing. We will also be expanding our regular custodial coverage from weekly to daily in classrooms, labs, and conference areas.


Question from sprucegoose11: Will our Student Health Insurance Plan cover testing costs for the virus? Will the Tang center be testing students?

Nicolette: There is no cost to students for testing of those people that meet the CDC criteria for testing. Call the UHS Advice Line at 510-643-7197 if you believe you might have this illness, and we will help guide the next steps. Faculty/staff need to contact their healthcare provider, unless they believe they were infected in the course of their required duties at UCN (e.g. healthcare providers, UCPD), in which case they can also contact Occupational Health at 510-642-6891.


Question from sprucegoose11: Does campus administration advise against traveling over spring break?

Fisher: We are recommending students follow the Centers for Disease Control and U.S. Department of State recommendations for personal travel. CDC currently advises against non-essential travel to China, Iran, Italy, or South Korea. Aside from any risk from coronavirus itself, the transportation bans and infrastructure disruption are significant. It is also possible that U.S. borders might close to re-entry from some areas, making it challenging to return.

Steve Sutton, vice chancellor for student affairs: There will soon be a short spring break travel survey from the Division of Student Affairs that will help us understand students’ spring break travel plans. We encourage students who receive an email invitation to please fill out this form, as it helps the campus better prepare. Cal Dining will be providing service over Spring Break for students who remain on campus. There will be service at the Crossroads location Sunday, March 22 through Saturday, March 28, with hours of service to include brunch 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and dinner 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.


Questions from neuralsurfer2000: Why hasn’t UC Berkeley already taken strong action in the form of cancelling classes/shifting them to all online?

Oliver O’Reilly, chair, Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate: Our goal and hope is to be able to continue instruction, modified as necessary. We are actively recommending that faculty use technology to accommodate students and to discourage sick students from coming to campus. To date, many departments have been adopting the recommendations, however we are aware that some have not – I shared a message with department chairs last night to strongly encourage they do so.

Should the public health officials advise the campus community to limit time spent in close physical proximity to each other, faculty who adopted the recommendations will enable the campus to maintain instructional continuity and ensure that students will continue to make academic progress. Instructors who haven’t adopted the recommendations will be in a very difficult position and may be unable to continue teaching their courses. This will put their students in an even more challenging position and will put the faculty member at odds with their responsibilities.


Question from sharksuki: What conditions have to be met for you to justifiably (by your definition) cancel classes?

Alivisatos: We are monitoring conditions on campus and in very close contact with the CDC and local public health officials (Berkeley Public Health and others). We would use their expert guidance, as well as consultation with the UC Office of the President, to make a decision like this. It is likely we would require all classes to move online before making the decision to cancel them.


Questions from pm-me-historyfacts: Given the high density of people in the dorms, it’s possible that just a few people could infect huge numbers of people. What is the administration doing to be proactive in high risk situations like this?

Sutton: We are currently bringing in an existing outside vendor to provide deep cleaning services for dorms and other spaces. I responded more fully to this above, but Residential Student Service Programs has plans in place to move students who are confirmed to have COVID-19 to isolation spaces (with beds, showers, kitchenette) and to have food delivered to them. If experts believe that multiple people within a dorm/floor have been exposed, we plan on quarantining floors and again providing food delivery.


Questions from pm-me-historyfacts: What is the recommendation on travel outside the U.S.? In the case that students are stuck in other countries, what can they do?

Fisher: Our recommendation is to follow CDC guidance, which currently advises against non-essential travel to China, Iran, Italy, or South Korea. The CDC is advising social distancing strategies, including staying home for 14 days, for individuals returning from these countries. Please check the travel guidance on our website for more info here.


Question from usernoob23: What are you actually doing to help mitigate the effect once it reaches UC Berkeley?

Nicolette: We have already amended our triage processes (online and nurse-staffed) to enhance our ability to take care of as many people as possible while minimizing the risk of exposure to others, and we will do so further should there be a case on campus. UHS operations are planning to convert to a higher volume mass assessment model should we face an outbreak situation, changing our appointment model, separating patient flow, and potentially conducting triage outside the building.

We are setting up contracts with temp agencies to provide additional staff and have been preparing for adapted use of medical equipment to make it stretch further, in alignment with CDC guidance. We are also preparing our mental health staff to be better able to support our students, and our occupational health and employee assistance programs to do the same for faculty/staff.