Merced County Times Newspaper
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UC Merced assisting students as COVID delays in-person classes


Charles Nies, UC Merced’s vice chancellor of Student Affairs, told the Times, “UC Merced is part of a research project, and we’re looking at sewer waste, and we detected Omicron in Merced County in September. I haven’t heard of any case of an individual being identified as positive for Omicron, but it’s coming.

“I’ve been hearing from my colleagues at the UC campuses which are on the quarter system and started Monday [Jan. 3] that they have students who have moved back into the building and they’re seeing their COVID cases starting to go up. I think the wave is coming to Merced. …

“Instruction at UC Merced for the Spring semester begins Jan. 18, but we’ve delayed in-person instruction. Remote instruction was anticipated for the first week, but based on the experiences of universities that began instruction this week, we are extending our period of remote instruction through Jan. 28.  In-person instruction at our campus will begin Monday, Jan. 31.”

UC campuses at Irvine, Davis, Santa Cruz and San Diego, whose new quarters began January 3, reported that rising Coronavirus positivity rates had led them to be cautious and push back the start of in-person instruction to January 31, as well.

Describing the issue he sees and the steps UC Merced is taking to assist students, faculty and staff with a potential Omicron surge, Nies said, “We are seeing with our age population, which is for the most part healthy 20-something college students, there isn’t an extreme level of illness.  In general, however, there’s the aspect that no one wants to get it.  We’ve been living with flu symptoms for decades, but no one particularly wants to get the flu because you’re just miserable for several days.  Although the idea is this might feel like a bad head cold or a mild case of the flu, it’s still something we would like to find ways to mitigate as much as possible.

“Our students aren’t back yet from the break, so we have a little bit of time.  Our first step is promoting the information that as soon as they’re eligible they need to get the booster shot.  Of our over 9,000 students, 98 percent are already vaccinated with the two-shot protocols, so we’re now identifying when they’ll be able to get their booster shot.  Pfizer has made their booster available in five months, and Moderna has said six months.

“We’re working with Golden Valley Health Center to set up a vaccine clinic that would operate from campus, but include the community so that students and others can take advantage of the booster shots.

“We would be looking at providing that as early as Jan. 14, and it will be running particularly on Saturdays when students are moving in.

“The other piece is we’re trying to encourage people to do testing.  We have a daily reminder on an app available through their phones from the campus and also an e mail and it’s for students to click on and determine whether or not they’re experiencing symptoms by answering questions, and what to do if they are.

“We will have a rapid test kit placed in every student’s room when they move into their residence halls, and we encourage everyone to test before they come to the university, and if they test positive to get well first.

“There will be a testing center on campus which is not a rapid test, but rather a saliva test, and every day, we drive samples up to a lab in UC Davis, and that gives us less than a 24-hour turnaround time.

“If you do test positive, what does that mean?  We have isolation rooms available so the student can be moved out of their housing situation, and food can be delivered to the isolation room, and there will be someone to check in with the student on a daily basis during their recovery.

“We had the isolation rooms in place in the Fall, but we’re looking to expand them because we anticipate with Omicron we will need more.

“We are hoping to work with local hotels so if a student lives off campus, renting a house in the community, and one of their roommates tests positive, there will be options for house mates to live somewhere else while the student who is positive stays at the house and recovers.  We will continue to do health checks with the roommate who is at home and recovering.

“We set up our dining operations to be truly grab and go instead of sit-down dining in our dining area.  We re-created our menus so they’re more designed for a grab and go environment.  Students can come through a line and buy food and take it elsewhere to eat, so we’re not increasing the potential for exposure.

“We have a campus mask policy, and when walking on campus, our students are masked but still having a good time and enjoying life.

“We want students to get the message the institution cares about them and is looking out for their overall well-being.

“We are also thinking about how to support our staff who may get sick, and be able to still provide the needs of the students.

“We’re developing back-up in place should we have a large number of our staff become ill.

“The UC has extended COVID leave coverage through June so if anyone has to stay away from work for 10 days, it will not negatively impact vacation time and sick leave, and in this way, we’re trying to make sure our staff and faculty feels supported as well.”

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