Over the last two weeks, more than 40 students and staff affiliated with Cal Football have tested positive for COVID-19.
No new positive cases have been identified among the 115 student-athletes on the team, which has a 99% vaccination rate, according to UC Berkeley spokesperson Janet Gilmore. Similar to the football team, 99% of all student-athletes are vaccinated, Gilmore added.
Due to isolation orders and player unavailability, Cal Football’s game against USC on Nov. 6 was rescheduled for Dec. 4, while the status of the Big Game against Stanford remains questionable. Cal Football head coach Justin Wilcox said the team is not “out of the woods yet,” but remains optimistic about the Big Game.
“Before the outbreak, student-athletes followed the same vaccination and testing policy as other students,” Gilmore said in an email. “The current situation with the football program involves an outbreak, so campus outbreak protocols apply to that program.”
These outbreak protocols include the isolation orders, in line with guidelines from the City of Berkeley Public Health Division for those with positive cases, according to the University Health Services website.
Close contacts are advised to remain alert for symptoms and get tested three to five days later.
“Our primary concern is for the health of our student-athletes, and we continue to monitor the situation closely,” said campus Director of Athletics Jim Knowlton in an email. “As we know, this pandemic is not over. We need to respect it and understand that it can affect much of what we do every day.”
Campus fifth-year Daniel Scott, a safety for Cal Football, echoed Wilcox’s sentiments during a press conference and added the team initially went through a “mix of emotions” following the game cancellation. Scott said many players’ frustrations stemmed from a lack of “clarity and communication,” but noted the atmosphere at practice was improving.
Scott added the team’s younger players have been “doing a great job” in adjusting and said the team has grown closer due to the situation. At a separate press conference, offensive lineman and sixth-year Valentino Daltoso said the priority for the team now is to “keep following the protocols and play football.”
“We’re going to be getting a lot of guys back within the next week or so, so I’m excited,” Daltoso said during the press conference. “I love playing in the Big Game; I missed it last year. 2019 was a fantastic game so (we are) trying to get the Axe back.”
While the outbreak among football players has raised concerns over games and player safety, it has also been the focus of public health discussions. Campus professor of epidemiology Arthur Reingold pointed out how the rash of cases illustrates the nature of vaccines and the importance of booster shots.
While the COVID-19 vaccine is not perfect and does not confer complete protection against infection, Reingold noted it does a “very good job” of keeping people safe. He also said it is crucial for people to receive their booster shots, as the effectiveness of the initial course of vaccinations can wane over time.
“We have seen infections in previously vaccinated people, and the fact that there are documented cases and transmission among vaccinated people is not news,” Reingold said. “The wrong message is that the vaccines are not working, and we see some people saying that but it’s not the intelligent understanding or conclusion.”
John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus in the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, added the breakthrough cases may not present a “great deal of concern” to the healthy, vaccinated players. He noted, however, it is important to scrutinize any outbreak and consider how and to whom the virus may spread.
Joseph Lewnard, campus assistant professor of epidemiology, offered another perspective: that outbreaks are part of what happens when living with a virus such as COVID-19. Lewnard also urged people to receive their booster shot, suggesting campus to prioritize booster administration and rethink its current testing regimen.
“In regards to UC Berkeley, it depends upon how aggressively the university looks for breakthrough infections,” Swartzberg said. “If you don’t look, you won’t find them, and some universities may not look as aggressively, particularly on sporting teams.”