In the middle of the football season, a brouhaha has broken out in Berkeley.
On one side: The city’s public health department, which insisted on testing the entire Cal football operation — even asymptomatic, vaccinated individuals — after a few players were found to be COVID-positive.
On the other side: An infectious disease specialist from UCSF who roasted Berkeley’s response and downplayed the need for the mass testing during a television interview Wednesday night.
And in the middle: The frustrated, powerless Cal football program, which is 99.5% vaccinated but somehow slammed with 44 positive COVID-19 cases and the ignominy of being the only major college football team unable to take the field this season because of a coronavirus outbreak.
Or is it an outbreak?
Berkeley Public Health seems to think so. In a statement released earlier this week, the department described the situation, citing Cal-OSHA’s workplace safety rules, as a “major” outbreak and accused the Bears of having “an environment of ongoing failure to abide by public health measures.”
Bears coach Justin Wilcox didn’t specifically refute the charges, preferring to stay above the fray. But he defended Cal’s season-long attempts to adhere to the guidance provided by the campus and Berkeley health.
“I will say we have followed the guidance based on our vaccinated population, and/or unvaccinated population, which was very small,” Wilcox said Wednesday evening in his first public remarks since Saturday’s game against USC was rescheduled to Dec. 4 because of COVID-19 spread within the team.
Instead, the criticism of Berkeley Public Health’s handling of the situation came from an unlikely source: The associate chief of the Division of HIV, Infectious Diseases, and Global Medicine at UCSF Medical Center.
“I have zero panic whatsoever as a public health person, as an infectious disease doctor, of 44 healthy people who are fully vaccinated who may have a little virus in their nose on a highly sensitive test,” Dr. Monica Gandhi told CBS affiliate KPIX Wednesday night.
“It is not an outbreak, it does not mean they got sick, and it does not mean the vaccines don’t work. It means that our public health strategy in this case was off, and they were doing mass testing of people who didn’t need it.”
The crisis began last week, when a handful of players tested positive. (It’s not clear whether those players were the two or three who are unvaccinated.) Berkeley Public Health, working with University Health Services, insisted that the entire football program be subjected to COVID-19 testing using PCR machines.
The tests turned up 24 positives among the players, including quarterback Chase Garbers. Several assistant coaches also were positive and held out of the 10-3 loss to Arizona.
Cal had more positive tests this week. In the same statement that revealed the total number of cases (44), Berkeley Public Health slammed the football program’s application the safety guidelines:
“Cases emerged in an environment of ongoing failure to abide by public health measures. People in the program did not:
· Get tested when sick· Stay home when sick· Wear masks indoors”
Asked to respond, Wilcox noted that health professionals are embedded within the program.
“Is everybody perfect in following every protocol? I don’t know that I could say that. We do the best that we can,” he said. “I have never had a meeting about the egregious non-compliance of our players. I haven’t had that meeting.
“Do we have to remind people from time to time to put their mask on? Have I been told that? Yeah, absolutely. And I would also think maybe there’s folks in the city of Berkeley walking down the street or going to church or dinner or whatever, maybe students on campus, that might fall into the same category.”
Wilcox said he couldn’t explain the high case count in a 125-person football program (approximately) with a 99.5% vaccination rate. But the statement from Berkeley Public Health failed to include two salient points:
— The overwhelming majority of cases were asymptomatic.
— Not all of the 44 COVID-positive individuals were necessarily spreading the disease.
The PCR machines used in the testing process are capable of detecting virus that lingers in the nose for months — long after it has turned inactive and cannot be transmitted.
But because Cal hadn’t tested the vaccinated players since the pre-vaccine stage of the pandemic — it wasn’t necessary, according to CDC policy — there was no way to tell if the asymptomatic cases were active or inactive infections.
The potential for sample contamination also exists.
“The CDC has been clear that if you feel well, and you’re vaccinated, then there’s no reason to test regularly,” Gandhi told KPIX. “This is not a CDC recommendation to do vast asymptomatic testing of vaccinated people.”
However, it is the policy of Berkeley Public Health, under certain circumstances.
According to the university’s website:
An outbreak is defined by Cal/OSHA as three or more employee cases in an exposed work group in a 14 day period … In addition, during an outbreak, UC Berkeley works closely with Berkeley Public Health who may include additional requirements such as testing of all members of an exposed work group at a prescribed frequency.
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The Bears had enough positive cases to be deemed an “outbreak” by health officials, who then began mass testing.
“We are transiently all getting this virus in our noses,” Gandhi told KPIX. “At this point, in highly vaccinated places, we need to start testing only if people are sick. This did not need to get to this point.”
Berkeley officials did not reply Thursday, a city holiday for Veterans Day, to a request for a response to Gandhi’s assertions.
The Bears will be tested twice a week for the rest of the season, Wilcox said, and other changes have been made to minimize the chances of further COVID-19 spread. Weight-lifting has been moved back outside, as it was a year ago, and there also have been adjustments made to team meals and workouts.
Wilcox said he is optimistic that the Bears could be closer to full strength next week as preparations begin for the Big Game at Stanford on Nov. 20.
Asked for his message to Cal fans, Wilcox suggested, “Choose optimism.”
Reporter Jeff Faraudo contributed to this story.
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