The Tang Center courtyard along Bancroft Way, Jan. 28, 2021. Photo: Pete Rosos

UC Berkeley reported 184 COVID-19 cases in the last week, hitting its peak during the pandemic and asking all students in campus housing to quarantine as cases continue to spread primarily among undergraduate students.

Daily cases had mostly been in the single digits leading up to Jan. 26, but they jumped to 42 cases among undergraduates alone on Friday. There were two other cases among graduate students and staff, making a total of 44 cases that day. On Sunday, there were another 34 cases and 100% were undergraduates.

The total number of cases in the last week amounts to about 25% of cases at the university since April, when Cal reported its first case. It has since had 731 cases of COVID-19 among its community members to date.

a chart of UC Berkeley COVID-19 cases since June shows a steep spike in the last week of January
A chart of UC Berkeley COVID-19 cases since April shows a steep spike in the last week of January. Photo: UC Berkeley COVID-19 dashboard Credit: UC Berkeley

The university has a workplace exposure public dashboard that shows where cases or symptoms are being reported, and it shows seven cases at the Unit 2 dorm in the last week. Several Berkeley community members contacted Berkeleyside and raised alarm over the outbreak at Unit 2, saying students were told to stay in their rooms because of cases on their floor. Others said entire floors have been moved into quarantine housing.

Adam Ratliff, Cal spokesperson for student housing issues, confirmed the cases at Unit 2 but said only certain groupings of students at the dorm — not necessarily entire floors — have been moved to isolation or quarantine housing at the Foothill dormitory on Hearst Avenue (at La Loma Avenue).

Cal has several measures in place for on-campus housing during the COVID-19 pandemic, and these student groupings contain 12 people or less.

If a student lives on the same floor as someone who got COVID-19, but isn’t in their grouping, they wouldn’t be placed in a different dorm to isolate or quarantine. Students are required to get tested twice a week if they’re living on campus and Ratliff said contact tracers are in touch with all students to determine if they has close contacts outside of their group.

“Because lounges and other common areas are not open this year, and students are not allowed to socialize indoors with members of other residential household groupings, students on other floors of the same building are not automatically considered “’close contacts,’” Ratliff said.

Cal is also asking all students to “self sequester” out of an abundance of caution for one week. In an email to students who live on campus on Monday, Cal said students must remain in their room as much as possible until Feb. 8 and wear face coverings in all common areas, including bathrooms. The university has also arranged for outdoor food kiosks where students can pick up meals. It will resemble the self-quarantine that students had to undergo when they first came to campus in fall 2020.

The mandated self-quarantine is also a measure to make sure the Foothill dormitory doesn’t fill up, Ratliff said, in response to community claims that the quarantine dormitory has already filled up. “We want to “flatten the curve” and reduce the spread within our community,” he added.

Cal’s workplace dashboard currently lists just under 50 cases at campus worksites, and spokesperson Janet Gilmore said this is any person who has been at that site — not just workers. Each “case ID” number in the workplace exposure dashboard refers to one person, but the ID number may be repeated if the person in question has been in multiple locations.

In one case, a single person who either tested positive for COVID-19 or had symptoms visited seven separate locations within a day on Jan. 27.

Cal is testing community members who live both on and off campus and the workplace exposure dashboard doesn’t provide a comprehensive list of where its cases are happening. It currently accounts for about a fourth of cases, and includes the Unit 2 and 3 dorms, Blackwell Hall, Wellman Hall, the Rec Sports Facility, graduate housing and more.

As cases ramp up across its campus, Cal has been emailing students asking them to not attend gatherings, to stay in the company of the people they live with and be mindful of spreading the virus to more vulnerable community members. Students have also been pleading with their peers on social media to avoid behavior that causes them to lose work hours by getting sick or transmitting the virus to family members.

During Mayor Jesse Arreguín’s virtual town hall Tuesday evening, Berkeley Health Officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez says the city continues to stay in touch with Cal’s health department to ensure student and community safety. She said the cases are partially due to students returning from winter holidays, and encouraged students to use services available at the Tang Center.

UC Berkeley’s COVID-19 seven-day-case positivity of 1.2% is just under the city’s 1.38%, which has begun to drop after a surge of cases in December along with the rest of the Bay Area. On Jan. 25, the state announced that Berkeley and Alameda County would be released from the countywide shelter-in-place order due to the increasing availability of ICU beds.

But local leaders are emphasizing that we’re currently in one of the most dangerous periods for the virus since the pandemic began, and it’s critical to abide by safety measures while the vaccine rollout process begins making an impact among vulnerable residents.

Cal has started vaccinating its healthcare workers and will be receiving its own vaccine shipments to cover the rest of its community in the coming months, as it forges ahead with plans to open up for in-person instruction in the fall.

The university says it is currently vaccinating people aged 65 and above (slightly ahead of the city, which is in the early stages of Phase 1B with 75 and above) and has used up all of its 900 doses as of Sunday. They will receive an additional 700 doses this week and move operations into the Associated Students building to ramp up the rollout and appointments are being offered directly to individuals who are eligible.

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Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...