UBC says student housing well-positioned to handle COVID-19 outbreak

UBC Housing said it is prepared for a major outbreak of COVID-19 in residences, although one student said these plans and safety measures haven’t been communicated to residents.

In an interview with The Ubyssey in early January, Associate VP of Student Housing & Community Services (SHCS) Andrew Parr said that student housing’s current COVID-19 measures are not under significant strain in terms of student isolation space and physical distancing, although that could change once classes return in person on February 7.

He said the university has set aside enough isolation-specific units to accommodate an average of 16 new in-residence cases per day. SHCS is not currently in danger of exceeding that 16 case capacity, according to Parr.

At the time of the interview, there were about 50 vacant self-isolation units.

However, this could change should any residenceS experience a superspreader event.

In that event, Parr said plans are in place to allow students to quarantine in their own rooms, including expanded self-isolation food delivery services — which is currently only available to self-isolation units.

There will also be enhanced measures to protect residents of shared units should one occupant test positive.

“We’re not executing on that just now,” said Parr. “We have a plan in place, we have communication in place and we will execute it if we need to.”

The Student Housing Office confirmed this in a recent email to returning residents, providing a list of precautions to limit the spread COVID-19.

However, in order to access these self-isolation units, students must provide a positive COVID-19 test. Provincial guidance currently recommends that people only get tested if they are symptomatic and aren’t fully vaccinated, are immunocompromised or work and live in high-risk settings.

Under the current policy, symptomatic students following the provincial testing guidance could be left without a space in which they could safely isolate themselves from others.

Residence officials are aware of this problem, according to Parr. He stressed that students must follow Provincial Health Office recommendations and self-isolate in their rooms if they develop symptoms.

The same recommendation extends to measures such as mask-wearing and limiting social gatherings.

‘It’s one tool to help the community be safe’

Parr also said that Residence Life has been providing residents with as many at-home rapid tests as possible.

He said that this month, new residents were given nine rapid tests as part of their welcome package, and that residents who remained on campus over winter break could pick up tests at the front desk of residences.

SHCS will continue to receive and distribute tests, although Parr admitted that supplies will be very limited and that rapid testing is not the key to preventing transmission.

“Just remember that it’s one tool to help the community be safe,” he said. “It’s not a kind of magic, it’s not the be all, end all.”

On January 26, UBC also announced that symptomatic students, faculty and staff can pick up rapid testing kits starting February 7 when classes are set to return in person .

Parr said that students that test positive via rapid test will be eligible for self-isolation unit access. However, no contact tracing is being performed.

Parr added that first-year residences are currently operating at just 40 per cent occupancy, while year-round residences are at 60 per cent. This means that physical distancing measures can be implemented in shared spaces such as cafeterias and study rooms.

“Because just the general population is less, our dining rooms are less occupied for example,” he said. “It allows almost just a natural opportunity for more physical distancing.”

However, Parr acknowledged that the university is unsure how to maintain this advantage once classes return to campus and students return to residences en masse.

He said that SHCS is working with the Provincial Health Officer and Vancouver Coastal Health to develop strategies for how to safely return to campus and in-person instruction.

'I don’t know the finer details’

However, these various precautions have not been well-communicated to students living in residence, according to second-year student and Walter Gage resident Ellie Martin.

Martin said that she and many of her neighbours were unaware of what to do should they test positive or develop symptoms.

“I don’t know where I [should] quarantine, I don’t know which people have gotten COVID[-19] in my building,” she said. “I just feel that there’s a lack of transparency between who has COVID[-19] and what to do if we do get COVID[-19].”

Martin said that she doesn’t know what to do if she tests positive and doesn’t know where to get a rapid test. She added that none of her friends in residence know either.

“It’d be really nice if there’s like a poster or something in residences about what to do,” Martin said.

“I know vaguely that there’s housing available, but I don’t know where it is. I know there are test kits available, but I don’t know where that is. I don’t know the finer details, but I know that there is in theory stuff being put out.”