UBC announces new COVID-19 testing, vaccine disclosure policies ahead of the start of fall classes

Update on September 28 at 5:3o p.m.: UBC community members who are not fully vaccinated or didn’t disclose their vaccination status can book their rapid testing appointment at this website. They will need to get tested once a week.

UBC will require COVID-19 testing for all students, faculty and staff who are unvaccinated or don’t wish to disclose their vaccination status.

President Santa Ono announced the new policy in a press release posted on Thursday, August 26.

“While we are aware that a significant majority of our campus community have already been vaccinated and all safety precautions are in place for September, we are working towards offering rapid testing for our community members who have not yet been vaccinated against COVID-19, or who choose not to disclose their vaccination status,” he wrote.

Those who are fully vaccinated will be exempt from testing, but other details such as the frequency of these tests are still unclear.

The original announcement from the university only said that the university would “provide” rapid testing for students who weren’t vaccinated or didn’t disclose their status. It fell short of requiring testing for all unvaccinated people, a policy seen in other Canadian universities like the University of Toronto and in other BC universities like the University of Victoria.

This was reversed at 4 p.m. on August 27 when UBC Media Relations Director of University Affairs Matthew Ramsey clarified that tests would in fact be required for anyone who isn’t vaccinated.

In an interview at 11 a.m. that day before the change in policy, Ramsey stopped short of saying the university would be mandating testing, and instead pointed to UBC’s trust in students to make “safe and healthful decisions.”

“Those in our community who are not vaccinated will be directed to rapid testing,” he said. “We believe those not vaccinated for whatever reason will act responsibly and participate in the testing program.” The university has since updated its position to make testing mandatory for the unvaccinated.

Along with the new rapid testing program, vaccinated students, faculty, staff and visitors to campus will be able to confidentially self-declare their vaccination status. No additional details were provided, but more information would be released when available, Ono wrote. However, students will be able to choose to not disclose their vaccination status.

In the Friday morning interview, Ramsey said UBC was developing its own system to allow students to self-declare their vaccine status.

“We know that there are many, many questions that are left to be answered, and we will be doing our very best to answer those questions in as clear and quick manner as we can,” Ramsey added. “But we would look for a little bit of patience from those in the community as we work to address this very, very complex return planning.”

Earlier on Thursday, Dr. Sabrina Wong, a professor at the Centre for Health Services and Policy Research, announced that a new rapid testing clinic would be opening in the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre (IKB) on August 30.

In a message to The Ubyssey, Wong said the new clinic at IKB will run “alongside but separate” from the UBC clinic announced in Ono’s press release.

The IKB testing site will be used as another clinical research trial — similar to the clinic in Orchard Commons that closed on August 20 — and offer more frequent testing to a greater age range, according to Wong.

UBC’s announcement follows a slew of new measures introduced by the province to allow for a safer return to campus.

On Monday, August 23, the province announced a vaccine card system to start on September 13, in which only those who are vaccinated can go to places deemed non-essential, like gyms, restaurants and bars. The following day, the province added that vaccines would be required for those living in on-campus student residences starting September 7 — the first day of classes — and that an indoor mask mandate would begin August 25.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said that universities in BC could not institute a broad vaccine mandate for students — save for health sciences students — but could for faculty and staff as an employer. Ono reiterated that proof of vaccination would not be required for “educational activities such as attending classes, orientation activities or other post-secondary activities.”

Ono added that the university will consult with students, faculty and staff associations and unions regarding the development and implementation of these new policies. He also encouraged those who are still not vaccinated to do so, directing people to the pop-up Vancouver Coastal Health clinic in the Life Sciences Centre.

AMS VP Academic and University Affairs Eshana Bhangu said the AMS was “very happy” with the announcement.

“We’ve been advocating for a safe return to campus … since June and this is a big step in making campus safer this fall for all the students who are choosing to call UBC their home,” Bhangu said.

She said the AMS would be carefully watching the implementation of these new measures — adding that the student society is still hoping for a full vaccine mandate on campus and testing requirements for the unvaccinated.

But Bhangu called this announcement “better late than never.”

“We should have been taking these steps far before and showing the leadership that students expect from a university like UBC. There’s still months of relationship-building and community engagement that the leadership needs to do, but we’re happy with the steps [that have been taken].”

with files from Kevin Nan

This article has been updated to include comment from UBC Media Relations. This article has been further updated to show that UBC changed its original messaging from providing rapid testing to requiring rapid testing.