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Safe reopening of college campuses during COVID-19: The University of California experience in Fall 2020



Epidemics of COVID-19 in student populations at universities were a key concern for the 2020-2021 school year. The University of California (UC) System developed a set of recommendations to reduce campus infection rates. SARS-CoV-2 test results are summarized for the ten UC campuses during the Fall 2020 term.


UC mitigation efforts included protocols for the arrival of students living on-campus students, non-pharmaceutical interventions, daily symptom monitoring, symptomatic testing, asymptomatic surveillance testing, isolation and quarantine protocols, student ambassador programs for health education, campus health and safety pledges, and lowered density of on-campus student housing. We used data from UC campuses, the UC Health-California Department of Public Health Data Modeling Consortium, and the U.S. Census to estimate the proportion of each campus' student populations that tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 and compared it to the fraction individuals aged 20-29 years who tested positive in their respective counties.


SARS-CoV-2 cases in campus populations were generally low in September and October 2020, but increased in November and especially December, and were highest in early to mid-January 2021, mirroring case trajectories in their respective counties. Many students were infected during the Thanksgiving and winter holiday recesses and were detected as cases upon returning to campus. The proportion of students who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 during Fall 2020 ranged from 1.2% to 5.2% for students living on campus and was similar to students living off campus. For most UC campuses the proportion of students testing positive was lower than that for the 20-29-year-old population in which campuses were located.


The layered mitigation approach used on UC campuses, informed by public health science and augmented perhaps by a more compliant population, likely minimized campus transmission and outbreaks and limited transmission to surrounding communities. University policies that include these mitigation efforts in Fall 2020 along with SARS-CoV-2 vaccination, may alleviate some local concerns about college students returning to communities and facilitate resumption of normal campus operations and in-person instruction.

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