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Surge in coronavirus cases puts UC San Diego campus reopening in doubt

UC San Diego has been planning to announce that it will reopen the campus this fall.
UC San Diego has been planning to announce that it will reopen the campus this fall.
(File)

A plan to test all students, staff and faculty may not be sufficient to stop coronavirus spread.

A large and sudden increase in coronavirus infections across San Diego County has raised doubts about whether UC San Diego will be able to proceed with plans to welcome students back to the La Jolla campus for the fall quarter.

The university had been expected to release its “Return to Learn” plan late last week. But the announcement has been delayed several times to give UCSD time to evaluate the surge in cases being reported regionally.

On June 24, county health officials announced a record 332 positive test results for the COVID-19 coronavirus, three days after 310 became the new record. The number of related hospitalizations also has been growing.

The surge surprised and alarmed UCSD officials, who have been planning to announce that it will reopen the campus this fall, in part by offering a coronavirus test to all of its 65,000 students, faculty and staff. Such tests would be voluntary.

The plan also calls for having everyone on campus wear masks virtually all the time. No classes would have more than 40 students. Large lecture courses would be offered online. Older faculty members would be given the option to teach online rather than in person.

The university also wants the campus community to use smartphone apps that notify users when they have come in contact with a person who has tested positive for the virus. Contact tracers would identify who was exposed to the virus, minimizing its spread.

UCSD has set aside 330 rooms on campus where students can live while they’re dealing with an infection.

But the rising number of infections has made it unclear whether such a plan would be sufficient to protect the university community.

“We thought we had our plan ready to go, but we are worried about this surge and how it will affect the campus in the fall,” Dr. David Brenner, UCSD’s vice chancellor of health sciences, told The San Diego Union-Tribune.

UCSD also was shaken by news June 24 that New York, New Jersey and Connecticut will require visitors from states with high infection rates to quarantine for 14 days. Thousands of the university’s students come from other states, and about 5,600 come from mainland China, which also might face quarantine orders from the U.S. or its states.

The coronavirus infection rate has been rising throughout much of the United States.

“We are not seeing things moving in the right direction,” said Dr. Robert “Chip” Schooley, a UCSD professor of medicine who has been helping the campus prepare plans for bringing students back to campus.

“We are not going to open unless we can do it safely. And it is a concern watching what’s going on along the epidemiology front, from North Carolina to California.”

Saiba Varma, an assistant professor of anthropology, said, “I am concerned that safety is not really a priority and that the university is not going to be able to ensure people’s safety this fall and that it is likely that there will be an outbreak.

“I also think that it would be impossible to control the movement of students and staff.”

The mood on campus has changed rapidly.

The university rejoiced May 29 when it announced that it had tested 1,300 students for the virus and found no positive readings. UCSD was the first large American research university to conduct mass testing among its students.

“That makes me think that there’s not a lot of virus going on right now — which could change,” Dr. Angela Scioscia, interim executive director of student health and well-being at UCSD, said at the time.

Union-Tribune staff writer Paul Sisson contributed to this report.