Will UCSD Change its Masking Policy?

Surging Omicron cases in San Diego drove UC San Diego to extend remote learning through the first four weeks of Winter Quarter 2022. As the target date of Jan. 31 for the return to in-person instruction inches closer, discussions about the role of masks to curb the spread of the especially infectious Omicron variant have grown more relevant.

According to UCSD’s current Face Covering Policy, acceptable face coverings include fabric face masks of at least two layers, surgical masks, and N95 or KN95 masks. Unacceptable face coverings include scarves, ski masks, bandanas, balaclavas, gaiters, collars, turtlenecks, plastic face shields, or a single layer of fabric.

In an interview with The UCSD Guardian, Associate Professor Brandon Brown, an epidemiologist at the UC Riverside School of Medicine, highly recommended the use of more effective masks to curb the spread of COVID-19, as better masking could also serve as a bulwark against more drastic measures.

“​​We have closed and opened many times, so it seems prudent to now be more cautious than not.” Brown said, “If higher quality masks like N95 are made available to students, staff, and faculty everyone should be using them for return to campus, whenever that may be.”

Some Californian universities appear to share Professor Brown’s opinion and have moved to tighten their masking policy. For instance, the University of Southern California will require faculty, students, and visitors to wear medical grade masks, including surgical, N95, KN95, and KF94 masks for the spring semester. Cloth masks are no longer allowed unless a surgical mask is worn underneath.

Assistant Director of University Communications, Erika Johnson, wrote in an email to The Guardian that UCSD currently has no plans to change masking guidelines. However, Johnson noted that UCSD’s public health researchers are continuing to monitor the situation closely and that any updates to current interventions would only be with the goal of ensuring the safety of the UCSD community.

“The Return to Learn program is driven by an adaptive strategy,” Johnson said. “We are continually collecting data, refining our understanding of the situation and associated modeling, and modifying tactics accordingly to significantly reduce the risk of transmission of SARS-CoV-2. Any decisions about updates to the mask mandate or any other interventions that are being used to protect the campus community are driven by data and the expertise of UC San Diego’s public health researchers.“

Although UCSD has no plans to enforce a similar mandate, Dr. Robert Schooley, one of the professors heading the Return to Learn program, reiterated that UCSD students, faculty and staff were highly encouraged to use surgical or N-95 grade masks. In an email to The Guardian, Schooley explained how the various masks vary in their effectiveness and advocated for the use of N95 or N95-grade masks.  

“The N95 (or N95-grade masks including KN95, KF94, and KN94 masks) are much more effective than surgical masks,” Schooley said. “Cloth masks are better than a bare face but substantially less protective than surgical or N95 masks and I would discourage people from using them. They can provide a bit of additional protection when worn over a surgical mask to keep the surgical mask edges closer to the face but this is still not as effective as a N95-grade mask.”

However, some UCSD students have said that they feel that a more stringent mask mandate is unnecessary. John Muir College junior Stefanie Dao, expressed her reservations about the practicality of a stricter mask mandate. Dao was also concerned that such a mandate might cause needless confusion. 

“I think so far, [UCSD’s current masking policies are] enough, given that not everyone can afford those kinds of masks.” Dao said. “I think we should focus more on other effective solutions, instead of complicating the mask mandate.”

UCSD offers several options for students who have limited access to surgical or KN95 masks. Free KN95 masks are currently available to UCSD students at the Basic Needs Hub on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from noon to 3 p.m., and on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Alysson Satterlund invites students who cannot obtain a mask by these approaches to email the Office of the Vice Chancellor – Student Affairs

(VCSA), and arrangements will be made for masks to be provided. Triton Health Ambassadors will also have masks available as they roam throughout campus, and will be stationed at test kit Vending Machines in residential areas on Saturdays and Sundays. 

Photo taken by Althea Tien for The UCSD Guardian

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