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    Cals football team was 99% vaccinated before a big COVID-19 outbreak. What happened? – San Francisco Chronicle

    UC Berkeley’s football team is experiencing a major COVID-19 outbreak, with 44 students and staff testing positive, causing the team to postpone its Nov. 13 game against USC. But 99% of the people involved in the program are vaccinated, according to Cal officials.

    The decision — and the testing policy — has drawn ire from student-athletes on the team, including quarterback Chase Garbers, who said in a tweet that they weren’t required to get tested at all, given the team’s high vaccination rate.

    So what exactly happened?

    UC Berkeley does not require regular surveillance testing for vaccinated students or staff for 180 days after becoming fully vaccinated, according to the university’s website. But at the end of the six months, vaccinated people must be tested, after which they’re good for another 90 days. Students living on campus are required to test monthly, regardless of vaccination status.

    For vaccinated athletes, who were likely within the first six-month window, that meant that they only had to get tested when they had symptoms, Cal’s athletic director Jim Knowlton said in a videoconference with the media on Tuesday.

    But early last week, some symptomatic players tested positive for COVID-19, Knowlton said. Those positive cases prompted UC Berkeley and the city health department to test all players and staff, regardless of symptoms.

    After that, 24 players and coaches became unavailable for the school’s game against Arizona. The team also put into place a new “testing schedule” prompting all players and staff to get tested again this week, Knowlton said, eventually leading to the discovery of 20 more cases in the program, for a total of 44 lab-confirmed cases.

    Because there were more than 20 cases, the outbreak was classified as “major” by Cal-OSHA’s workplace safety rules. That prompted the university and the city of Berkeley to implement state testing guidance for a major outbreak, which requires twice-weekly tests going forward until there are fewer than three COVID-19 cases detected in the exposed group for a 14-day period. After that, the state guidance is for weekly testing until there are 14 days with no cases.

    Knowlton noted that only two people in the program — which has a total of 117 students and staff — are not vaccinated and both “had COVID.” He did not elaborate on whether the two are currently sick or have recovered.

    Cal football players expressed frustration on social media about having to get tested despite the team’s high vaccination rate and with so few showing symptoms. But if asymptomatic players refused to get tested, Knowlton said, they would not have been able to play due to guidance on outbreaks from the city of Berkeley and the university.

    Ultimately, however, the decision would have been Knowlton’s, he said.

    Still, an unanswered question is how so many vaccinated individuals on the team ended up testing positive. Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert at UCSF, said that he wasn’t suprised that there were so many breakthrough cases, especially given the rough nature of the contact sport.

    “Vaccines aren’t the only way to ensure safety in a high-contact acitivty like sports,” he said. “I think it must be accompanied by rapid testing.”

    Stanford, for example, requires all students who live on campus or are regularly there to get tested once a week if they’re vaccinated and twice a week if they’re not. While some players have missed games due to COVID protocols, the football team has not had a major outbreak like Cal’s. Chin-Hong said that this regular testing policy has likely prevented a rapid spread of the disease.

    On Tuesday night, in an email to The Chronicle, Matthai Chakko, a spokesperson for Berkeley Public Health, said that the 44 lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases within the program “emerged in an environment of ongoing failure to abide by public health measures.” He said people in the program did not get tested when sick, stay home when sick, or wear masks indoors.

    Knowlton said that participants in the football program probably wouldn’t have known about the cases without the testing.

    “I think someone’s who’s asymptomatic and who’s just out in the general public would never know that they ever even had COVID unless they did a test,” Knowlton said.

    Chin-Hong agreed, saying that many vaccinated people who don’t regularly get tested probably do get infected without knowing, but added that the needs of a regular person and someone on a sports team are different.

    “Vaccines are powerful to prevent serious disease, hospitalization and death,” he explained. “But when you’re on a sports team, you might have a different goalpost — which is prevention of infection, period,” in order to keep players on the field. With an investment in rapid testing, he said, “you can isolate the infected person, and the rest of the team members can be fine.”

    After the outbreak, UC Berkeley posted this message regarding its policy:

    “Everyone in the campus community should (1) use the symptom screener daily, (2) stay home when they have symptoms, (3) comply with the campus vaccination policy, (4) test when specifically directed to do by the campus and (5) observe the campus indoor face covering requirements, which we remind everyone are more restrictive than the city’s indoor face covering requirement.”

    Chronicle staff writer Ron Kroichick contributed to this report.

    Danielle Echeverria is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: danielle.echeverria@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @DanielleEchev

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