Students are voicing concerns about COVID-19 and breakthrough cases in the University community, including communication from the University and what appeared to be a lack of available testing.
Prior to the start of the in-person semester, the University required all students who “live, learn or work in person” at the University be fully vaccinated and show proof of vaccination or have an approved medical or religious exemption on file at Student Health and Wellness. Faculty and staff were encouraged, though not required, to be vaccinated.
While fourth-year College student Isabel Galgano was glad to return to in-person class, she said she wished the University had required faculty to show proof of vaccination in the same way it was asked of students.
“I wish they required faculty vaccinations when they required student vaccinations,” Galgano said. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me to have that difference.”
As of Wednesday, the University’s COVID-19 tracker reports 165 active cases within the University community, 120 of which are among students and 45 of which are among faculty and staff. It also reports a 3.4 percent positivity rate.
Isolation spaces are at 13 percent capacity. At U.Va. Health, there are 52 in-house hospitalizations of those with COVID-19, nine of whom were admitted Tuesday.
97 percent of students and 92 percent of faculty at the University have been fully vaccinated as of Aug. 23. Unvaccinated students are subject to weekly saliva PCR tests in order to “quickly identify cases, including asymptomatic carriers, and contain the virus,” according to the student testing policy site. As of Aug. 30, 507 students are participating in this required weekly prevalence testing.
“A number of these students are on temporary waivers and will cycle off of weekly prevalence testing requirements once they are fully vaccinated on or before Oct. 1,” said University spokesperson Wes Hester.
Students who are vaccinated are not required to be tested every week, but the University does offer free asymptomatic prevalence testing, which students may sign up for using Time2Test — the same site unvaccinated students use to schedule their appointments.
Tests for students are offered at Scott Stadium and the Emmett/Ivy Garage. Students can either schedule an appointment online or walk-in at the testing sites. Walk-in hours at Scott Stadium are Monday to Thursday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., while walk-in hours at Emmett/Ivy Garage are Fridays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Employees may be tested at the U.Va. COVID-19 clinic or Employee Health.
Some students expressed fear of a lack of available testing slots and long lines at testing sites. In response to an increased demand for slots, the University increased the number of tests marked for students relative to the number marked for employees Wednesday.
“I expect [the University] will continue to modify [testing] as the semester goes along based on changes in who is seeking tests,” University spokesperson Brian Coy said.
According to Coy, the number of tests allotted varies daily based on how many individuals are scheduled to appear for their mandatory testing and how many have made an appointment.
“It is worth noting that walk-ins are accepted and the clinic has yet to turn anyone away,” Coy said. “The folks running the testing program will continue to monitor demand in an effort to make sure those who wish to take a test can get a slot as soon as possible.”
Symptomatic students should make an appointment to be tested at Student Health — these appointments require students to fill out an honor pledge that they are in fact experiencing symptoms such as a fever or sore throat.
Last fall, University-mandated asymptomatic prevalence testing began shortly after students returned to Grounds for a mostly virtual academic school year. Weekly asymptomatic testing continued throughout the entirety of the school year.
While testing was free for students at that time, a single test cost the University approximately $30 to $55. Now that the University is conducting a lower volume of testing, Hester estimated that this cost will increase, though the University did not share an exact figure. Testing costs are funded by a combination of federal, state and institutional sources, Hester said.
The absence of a required prevalence testing policy this semester has been a concern for many — over 350 individuals have signed a petition calling for the University to reinstate mandatory prevalence testing for all students, vaccinated or not.
“Asymptomatic, presymptomatic, or mild symptomatic individuals may not get a COVID-19 test early enough or at all, leading to more exposures around Grounds during their infectious periods,” the petition reads.
Fourth-year College student Dasha Shneyder noted that there are ways in which the University can do better concerning its COVID-19 policies.
“I think U.Va. has much room for improvement regarding the current measures,” Shneyder said. “I support the University’s stance on vaccinations being a requirement, but I think prevalence testing should have continued into this semester.”
Shneyder also said that while there are certain requirements that have been made clear with regards to COVID-19, some aspects of the University’s plan regarding asymptomatic testing have been unclear.
“If not as a requirement, more people should be made aware that it’s even an option — I have seen nothing directly from the University that advertises asymptomatic testing as an option,” Shneyder said. “I wish students were still being tested regularly, especially with breakthrough cases happening and most distancing requirements outside of the classroom being lifted.”
According to Hester, the University is tracking breakthrough cases — cases where a person who is fully vaccinated becomes infected by COVID-19. According to the CDC, vaccines protect against the most severe cases of COVID-19 infection and significantly reduce the likelihood of hospitalization — less than 0.005 percent of fully vaccinated individuals who contract breakthrough cases of COVID-19 were hospitalized or died from the disease.
“The tracking of breakthrough cases is not yet precise enough to be considered a fully reliable and meaningful data point,” Hester said. “Thanks to our very high vaccination rates … it is safe to say that many confirmed cases are breakthroughs, which was expected.”
The University does plan, however, to implement targeted prevalence testing should new clusters and cases rise, Hester said.
Regardless of vaccination status, students who test positive for COVID-19 are expected to isolate. Students living in University-managed housing will be provided quarantine and isolation housing by the University, either in on-Grounds dorms or apartments or hotels, while students in off-Grounds housing are expected to self-isolate from housemates in their own spaces.
The University has a number of resources available concerning contact tracing and isolation and quarantine — these include fliers, two different student health websites and the University’s own coronavirus website.
Some students have expressed confusion concerning the University’s communication of quarantine and isolation protocols. Fourth-year College student Rainah Gregory, who lives off-Grounds, said she found the information “not easily accessible” and “inconsistent.”
“It seems like word of mouth at the moment,” Gregory said.
According to the University’s sources, both unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals who are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 should not attend class and should schedule an appointment with Student Health.
Unvaccinated individuals must contact Student Health if they believe they have been in close contact with a person known to have tested positive for the virus, whether or not they are displaying symptoms. Close contact is defined as being within six feet of an individual who has tested positive for COVID-19 for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period, living with them, providing care for them or being exposed to their respiratory secretions.
While vaccinated individuals who have been exposed are not required to contact Student Health if they are asymptomatic, they are asked to wear a mask for three to five days after exposure.