Supporting community health through fall quarter

To: UC Santa Cruz Faculty, Staff, and Graduate Students

From: Gary Dunn, PhD, Interim AVC Student Health and Wellness; and Elizabeth Miller, DO, Medical Director

Dear UC Santa Cruz Instructor Community,

Over the recent weeks, we have heard feedback from faculty, instructors, graduate students, staff, and deans, all passing along concerns about the risks of classroom teaching. We want to address this apprehension and provide some guidance.

The optimism felt by many in spring and early summer, brought on by the availability of COVID vaccines, has been replaced by unease as we face a surge in coronavirus cases caused by the highly contagious Delta variant. We acknowledge that this dynamic environment is frustrating and exhausting.

We understand the concerns of so many of you, particularly those with unvaccinated young children at home or immunocompromised family members, and recognize that we must adjust to the current situation. As we all individually and collectively adjust to life with the coronavirus and the risk it poses in our daily lives, we are committed to decision-making that is informed by science, focused on our mission, transparent, and honest.

Some may ask, given this environment, why should we return to a largely in-person community. The answer is to support the well-being of our students, while also taking extensive measures to mitigate the risks to our campus community, including faculty and staff.

A distanced learning environment worked well enough for some students, but the majority shared that the experience was isolating, frustrating, and depressing. Across the country, the mental health impacts have been documented. We want to be sure our students are able to successfully pursue their education in an environment where they can connect and share common experiences through a campus presence.

Vaccines are critical

We are taking a multi-prong approach to support the health and well-being of our campus community. That includes creating a campus community with a high rate of vaccination; requiring face coverings for indoor situations; and continuing our highly successful testing program to rapidly identify cases.

In addition to working with our own faculty, who have helped to guide our planning, we have remained in close contact with University of California health leaders, who are among the most respected in the world.

The COVID-19 vaccines have proven to be our best defense against the virus including the Delta variant. We have all seen that breakthrough cases do happen. However, data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently shows that the prevalence of a fully vaccinated person experiencing a breakthrough infection resulting in hospitalization or death is 0.0058 percent.

The Delta variant is the predominant coronavirus strain in our local community, and the majority of the cases arise from those who are not vaccinated. We cannot completely contain this virus. It is highly transmissible, with a short incubation period. As we have seen in college campuses nationwide, there will be infections on campus, and we must accept that. Our priority is to avoid significant spread with the goal of minimizing severe infections.

With the UC vaccine policy in place, our goal is to have at least 90 percent of our campus community vaccinated prior to the start of instruction. This will significantly reduce the virus’s prevalence on campus. This vaccination rate will be significantly higher than the rate in our surrounding community and the rest of California.

UC Santa Cruz is also requiring masks in classrooms and most other indoor situations, regardless of vaccination status. A high-quality face mask has proven to be another effective tool in reducing the virus’s spread. None of our health center staff, even those treating students with COVID, have contracted the virus in connection with patient care. N95 masks are available to all employees and offer even greater protection. Those requesting an N95 must complete the short N95 Voluntary Use training. For those who want an added layer of protection, we advise wearing a cloth mask over a N95/KN95.

Finally, the campus will continue to run its highly successful asymptomatic COVID-19 testing program. This regular testing will help identify cases and allow us to isolate and quarantine people as appropriate.

Looking ahead

Public health authorities tell us that the risk of being together for the sake of our students is manageable. They tell us that classrooms where everyone is masked are not places where transmission is likely to occur. If changes in the external environment or on campus dictate a change, we will react quickly. In the meantime, we can give our students the in-person experience they want and expect because we rose to the challenge of vaccinating our community and are complying with all of the mandates that our public health officials have advised.

Additional information for instructors, graduate students, and instructional staff will be provided in the next few days. Our asymptomatic testing approach will be communicated as well. There will never be zero risk from this or any other infectious disease; however, with the non-pharmaceutical interventions outlined above and our high vaccination rates, we know that we can move forward with these plans for in-person learning.

This pandemic has taught us all to be flexible and responsive to the changing conditions. As we start fall quarter, we will closely monitor what’s happening on campus and in our local community and take the appropriate steps to best ensure the health and well-being of our campus community.

Gary and Liz

Gary Dunn, PhD
Interim AVC Student Health and Wellness

Elizabeth Miller, DO
Medical Director