A recent surge in COVID-19 cases in a handful of off-campus houses set off alarms on the UC Berkeley campus. But it also gave University Health Services (UHS) officials the chance to test and refine their protocols for dealing with an outbreak — and to build a cooperative relationship with off-campus residential groups.
UHS Medical Director Anna Harte has been watching the testing data for months. When an uptick in cases began in late June and continued into early July — 47 cases were reported in just one week — her team went into full contact-tracing mode, reaching students within hours of their results coming in.
Thanks to those contacts, it quickly became clear that the outbreak was among residents of several off-campus houses, including CalGreek chapters and a cooperative residence, who had attended the same independent gathering. Harte worked with houses with positive cases largely via Zoom, holding meetings to sort residents into risk groups and advising students who tested positive and those who tested negative to move into different parts of their houses.
“My focus is rapid response and containment,” she said.
Harte recommended that everyone be tested in any household within four to seven days of discovering a positive case, and that everyone isolate from outsiders for 14 days. Breaking the quarantine extends the isolation — something the students now are acutely aware of.
“What I’ve seen happen more is they’re taking more responsibility over the isolation and quarantine,” Harte said. “They’re hearing about this from their friends, so by the time we talk to them, they’re already doing some of the things we’ve recommended.”
Many students are uncomfortable sharing the names of the people they’ve been in contact with, she said. But they are telling their friends to get tested, so she feels comfortable that her office has contained the sparks of the coronavirus in this group. New cases have slowed to a trickle.
“Some students are very concerned with their own health and their sense of responsibility to the community, and some aren’t. But what they are concerned with is going into lockdown,” Harte said. “They want to have classes and sports and parties — normal college life. That’s a powerful motivator.”
Fraternity and sorority leaders praised Harte and her office’s response. Max Ackerman, president of the Interfraternity Council, said his organization has been proactive about COVID-19 safety since early March, banning gatherings and sending fraternities that ignored the rule through a disciplinary process.
The council is still discussing how to handle matters such as fall recruiting, or rushing, while continuing to educate fraternity members about how to stay safe when they return to Berkeley, Ackerman said.
“I truly could not be happier with how involved and caring the university has been, specifically Dr. Harte,” he said.
Camellia Edalat, president of the Panhellenic Council, said sorority properties are closed for the summer, so there haven’t been any issues at those houses. But she has been in close contact with university health officials and the Interfraternity Council, as well as the heads of the sororities, to prepare for the fall.
“I know that, as students, we appreciate the university stepping in and protecting us at all costs during this pandemic,” Edalat said. “The entire Panhellenic community is concerned about the pandemic and wants to do as much as possible to keep everyone safe and healthy.”
Berkeley recently announced that fall semester classes will begin with remote instruction, although some students are still expected to return to the campus and will live in both on- and off-campus housing. The campus is recommending, but not requiring, a COVID-19 test before students leave their hometowns. Students living in on-campus residence halls are expected to get tested within 24 hours of arriving on campus and to self sequester for a week, then get another test. The campus will have on-going testing set-up for students living on campus, in addition to the testing already happening at UHS.
At that point, they’ll be cleared to resume activities that include forming a social “pod,” and otherwise continue maintaining a safe physical distance from other students and wearing their face coverings. They will also receive regular surveillance testing.
If students in campus housing test positive for COVID-19, they’ll be moved to a separate residence hall for coronavirus patients, with access to food and mental health care and a nurse on call through a partnership between UHS and Residential Life. There are also a small number of off-campus housing slots available for those with COVID-19 who live outside the dorms and need to be isolated.
One student who will be returning to Berkeley is senior computer science major Liam Porr, president of the Sigma Nu fraternity. Porr has been living in Austin, Texas, since the campus closed. Porr contracted COVID-19 in June while in Texas, one of the first states to reopen. He said he and his friends were following the city’s rules, which allowed bars and restaurants to be open, but several of those friends tested positive.
After his own test turned up negative, he spent Father’s Day weekend with his family.
“I was hesitant to go back, but my family insisted because the test came back negative and it was Father’s Day. So I went home, and my symptoms got worse — I couldn’t smell anything or taste anything — and I went and got tested again the next day,” Porr said. “I tested positive, and my whole family ended up getting it.”
Luckily, no one became seriously ill. But his experience convinced Porr that some spread is inevitable, and he hopes his fellow students will take the threat seriously.
“I would caution others not to underestimate the infectiousness of it, and don’t take a city or government’s feelings of confidence as the truth,” he said, “because I think the city’s confidence that it was safe to reopen Austin lent itself to an air of casualness around the virus. People had begun to perceive it as not a big deal.
“I think the spread took everyone by surprise.”