Staff, students raise alarm about inadequate COVID measures at UBC

A UBC professor is slamming the university for failing to implement and enforce COVID safety measures promised by the school for the Fall semester. Kier Junos and Sonia Aslam report on the institution’s back-to-school plan progress.

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Despite having all summer to figure out a plan, the University of British Columbia (UBC) is being slammed for not implementing all the COVID-19 safety measures it promised staff and students it would in time for classes to resume.

Professor Mauricio Drelichman works in the Vancouver School of Economics and he’s raising the alarm of just how unsafe things are right now.

Drelichman says school officials didn’t really nail down a plan until just before classes resumed and much of what they agreed upon hasn’t been ushered in.

“Eventually, some sort of compromise was reached where the university would enact what’s called ‘The soft vaccination mandate.’ Basically, people have to be clear about their vaccination status and those who are not vaccinated have to submit to bi-weekly rapid testing.”

However, there is no rapid testing happening on campus and Drelichman adds the vaccine status of people isn’t being checked. He explains there’s also a lack of transparency when it comes to reporting positive cases or exposures.

He’s not sure when things will change but says the budget has been approved for a rapid testing clinic.

“They plan on having a capacity of 3,000 tests per week. There are currently no vaccination clinics at UBC. There’s no way for a student that isn’t vaccinated to get vaccinated on campus, you have to figure out where to go. And there is no testing going on. So, if a student is symptomatic, there’s no way for them to get tested on campus, they have to go to one of Vancouver Coastal Health’s test sites.”

Drelichman points out for any students who don’t have access to a car would have to, possibly, get on a bus to get tested.

As a professor facing classroom after classroom packed with students, Drelichman says he and other staffers are begging for information.

“We are being told almost nothing. What we know is if a student has tested positive any notifications should come through Vancouver Coastal Health, if necessary. The criteria for a necessary notification are not public. This leads to crowdsourcing efforts with anonymous students learning and tracking pages who try to collect information that they hear privately from students or professors that have been alerted to an exposure. This is, obviously, very incomplete information. There is no way to get the full picture.”

Drelichman says students in his classes are following the mask mandate but isn’t sure who’s enforcing things elsewhere. He’s also given his students the option to join his classes through a live stream so no one is forced to attend in person.

“It feels sad. It feels like a real crisis of leadership, both on the public health side and on the university administration side. We’ve had 18 months to deal with this. We had an entire of planning and it sure looks like no decisions were made until the very last week and those decisions have not been implemented yet. When I have someone watching my lectures on the live stream, I really cannot interact with them in real-time, the technology just doesn’t work. It’s a much-diminished experience and this could have been avoided if proper safety measures had been put in place during the long summer that we had to plan and that both the university and public health essentially wasted.”

He feels the solution is straightforward: the school needs to make good on the promises it made.

“We have a mandatory vaccination declaration. How about enforcing it? We have mandatory rapid testing program for unvaccinated people on campus, but how about setting it up? These are things that faculty, staff and students were promised would make for a safe return to campus and they are not being followed through. From public health, I think there has been a pattern throughout the pandemic of withholding information, of not letting people know what’s going on, not providing notifications of exposures, not providing data on the prevalence of COVID-19 transmission.

“Dr. Alex Choi, medical officer of health at Vancouver Coastal Health, clearly stated to [UBC’s Board of Governors] that they do not want to provide information on transmission on campus because they think it will stigmatize unvaccinated students. I would say the public interest of protecting everyone else from a potential infection trumps the protection of a very small, vocal group with a particular agenda. I would urge Vancouver Coastal Health and the public health officer of British Columbia to reconsider this stance and to make information transparent, widely available in a timely fashion.”

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He says there is an “overwhelming” feeling being shared by staff members and others on campus about the lack of measures and help in place.

“I talk to people every day, they approach me and say, ‘I totally agree with your position and your tweets, this is unconscionable.’ At the end of the day we have a job to do and we will do it. We will find a way to make it work but it would be a lot better to find a way to make it work in a safe manner.”

Drelichman feels as much of the onus falls on the school, he thinks it’s being constrained by public health.

“The Board of Governors seems to have taken the view that it must follow exactly what public health tells it do and not increase safety by an inch over the public health requirements. At the end of the day, more than half of the composition of the Board of Governors are direct provincial appointees that serve at the pleasure of the cabinet, so there you have it. You really cannot go against the will of the province.”

He says there’s no need to assign blame but wants either organization to step up and ensure everyone is safe.

“A lot of this could happen on the turn of a dime. I think public health needs to start listening to all the voices that are rising from campus. It needs to change its stamps on withholding information. I would appreciate a change of tone. Several times over the summer we have heard from both public health and from university leadership that these concerns that faculty, staff and students are voicing come from anxiety. After several points during the summer, both the vice-president of students and the province have pointed students and faculty to mental health resources to deal with their anxiety. To me, that’s the very definition of gaslighting.”

Drelichman says right about one-third of those attending the Point Grey and Okanagan campuses have not declared their vaccination status which is the equivalent of tens of thousands of people.

UBC working to make changes 

Matthew Ramsay speaks for UBC and he wants people to know how complex it can be to implement such safety changes at such a big campus.

He claims a rapid testing program is coming and details should be available by the end of this week.

Ramsay says the university has been working with VCH and Dr. Bonnie Henry’s office and he’s defending the allegation of apparent lack of planning over the summer to the Delta variant.

“There has been planning underway since March of 2020 but as we worked with our provincial government partners and our healthcare partners, the scenario changed quickly. It evolved quickly over the summer and we moved as quickly as possible. UBC is a community of 90,000 across two campuses, it’s like a small city, so these things don’t happen overnight. It’s not like flicking a switch. It takes a lot of planning. A lot consultation and a lot of discussion with government to ensure we are working within their guidelines and we are mindful of privacy, equity and access issues on our campus.”

He stresses UBC doesn’t blame Vancouver Coastal Health in any way, but points out the university isn’t in charge of setting up vaccine clinics on campus — the health authority is.

“They’re the ones who decide where to locate those clinics and how long they should be in operation for. Also, we are not in a position to mandate vaccines, that’s been very clearly articulated by the provincial health officer. What we did was design a program that best meets the needs of our community and we’re pushing on that program… to get it up and rolling as soon as possible.”

Ramsay was pressed on whether the safety needs of those on campus are truly being served.

“I feel the university is doing everything it can to make sure our community is as safe and healthy as possible. We have more than 97 per cent of the people who have disclosed their status have indicated that they are partially or fully vaccinated. More than 94 per cent of people who filled out those vaccine declarations have indicated they are double vaccinated.”

He says their tactic to get people double vaccinated is to encourage them.

Ramsay also says if a student doesn’t follow the mask mandate they will be educated on its importance and there are consequences in place but he wouldn’t say what they are, citing they’ll be handled on a case-by-case basis.

UBC is telling students who don’t feel well to stay home and Ramsay confirms there are online learning options for those who can’t attend classes in person.

In a statement to NEWS 1130, Vancouver Coastal Health says it is “committed” to ensuring staff and students have access to safe and quality healthcare.

“When public health is notified of a positive case in our region, including for an individual residing in the UBC community, they complete an investigation as efficiently as possible, identify close contacts of that person, and contact them directly to provide guidance on next steps,” it says.

These could include directions to self-monitor for symptoms and get tested if symptoms arise, or to self-isolate at home for close contacts who are not fully vaccinated.

VCH says when public health is unable to reach all close contacts, the authority says it may post a public exposure notice on its website to inform the public about potential exposure.

“If you have not been contacted by VCH Public Health, no additional action is necessary. Continue with daily health checks to assess yourself for COVID-19 symptoms,” it says.

The health authority says as of Sept. 21, almost 97 per cent of the population within the UBC Community Health Service Area has received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

“VCH set up a COVID-19 vaccine clinic at UBC for nine days at the start of the school year, administering 1,409 vaccines during that time. VCH is also working with UBC Student Health Services to support them hosting their own clinics in the future,” it reads.

Student doing COVID tracking

UBC COVID Tracker is an online portal being run by a student attending the school. NEWS 1130 spoke with the student, who wishes to remain anonymous.

She says they’re only a couple of weeks into classes and things already feel chaotic. She adds the lack of transparency is her biggest concern.

“There’s understandably a lot of students, faculty and staff who are uncomfortable with how the current guidelines are being implemented and they feel their safety and health isn’t being prioritized. UBC students were told there would be a vaccination mandate on campus, that hasn’t actually been fully enforced or fully implemented. No students have been asked to provide proof of vaccination.”

She’s fully vaccinated and admits she isn’t overly concerned with her safety and health but worries about people who live off-campus with elderly family members and for staffers who are older as well. “It feels confusing. It does feel unsafe and it sort of feels like there’s been a last-minute scramble to get everyone back on campus without actually putting a concrete plan in action or taking into account the health and safety considerations of the 60,000-something people on campus.”

This student says the only testing site on campus is for asymptomatic people and it’s part of a university study.
She also feels the university has the resources track what’s going on, but they’re not. She’s calling for more clarity, consistency and messaging from the school administration.

“I understand that it’s a difficult position to be in as an institution balancing having people here in person and giving people a good education and also keeping people safe at the same time, but I think UBC has more than enough resources to accomplish that and I am not qualified to be maintaining this database. I’m not a scientist. I’m not an expert. I don’t have access to the resources they do. I’m not qualified to be doing this so in the ideal situation they would be doing this instead.”

Right now, she’s relying on students to share details from their professors about possible cases and exposures.

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