As part of the updated Return to Learn plan for Winter Quarter 2021, UCSD has introduced 11 vending machines stocked with self-administered COVID-19 tests across campus. An additional nine vending machines are planned to be installed in mid-February.
Students who are required to test once a week can stop by the vending machines any time from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and perform their own tests. Each testing kit comes with a nasal swab, a code to scan through the UCSD app, and directions on how to use the kit.
The vending machines can dispense up to 2,000 test kits per day, and were valuable assets following the post-winter break surge of positive cases on campus. “[W]e anticipated a higher positivity rate when students returned to campus from the break, where they may have congregated with family and friends to celebrate the holidays” said UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla in a press release. “We increased testing frequency to weekly, and installed vending machines to dispense self-administered tests to increase access and convenience. Along with the use of isolation housing for positive cases and continued wastewater monitoring, the increased access and testing frequency have halted further spread on campus”. After the first week of the quarter, when 89 positive cases were reported in a single week, on-campus case rates have fallen to around two to five cases per day.
The idea for vending machine-distributed testing kits came about when UCSD Health Services realized there was an opportunity to reduce onsite staffing and increase the number of tests administered on campus.
“Understanding that human behavior is the weakest link in any plan, especially during this pandemic, we started looking at how to encourage and increase testing compliance and realized we needed to simplify the process and provide easier and more efficient access to testing,” said Christine Clark, Assistant Director of University Communications.
Students have found the vending machines an easy and convenient option for getting their weekly tests. “I really like the [vending machine] system. From the outsider’s perspective, it seems ridiculous to have vending machines, but I think it’s genius,” said Blake Estefan, a first-year Revelle College student. “The downside of course is that there are no health officials to proctor your test, but if nothing else people are going to follow the directions as close as they can if it means doing what’s best for their own health.”
However, the University has raised concerns about students, faculty, and staff sharing their free testing kits with those unaffiliated with UCSD, particularly among family and friends. On January 14, the Office of the Vice Chancellor sent out an email which read, “We are aware that some individuals have knowingly used their personal Active Directory (AD) login credentials to identify samples collected by another individual—in most cases a friend or loved one. While it may seem like a compassionate act to share access to testing, this practice can be medically dangerous. We’ve learned that it also poses a threat to public health and contact tracing efforts.”
Students who use their free testing privileges to help others access free testing were also threatened with “University disciplinary processes.” The university instead offers testing to the general public for $65 per appointment through UCSD Health, and states that free and low-cost testing can be found for non-students at multiple sites across San Diego County.
“It’s concerning to me that rather than provide testing for family and friends who may have been exposed for free, UCSD instead finds it necessary to punish students who use their free access to testing to get family members tested,” said Breanne Williams Sutton, a fourth-year Muir College student. “$65 for a test is not affordable for communities who are likely struggling financially even more than usual during this pandemic. For a college that prides itself on ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’, charging $65 for a test in the middle of a pandemic that disproportionately affects black and brown, often low income, communities seems wrong.”
The university bases its policy on state and federal law, which states that the use of another person’s medical identity is a violation of health and safety guidelines. “Ultimately, threatening students for wanting to help their family members get access to free testing is unnecessarily harsh and seems to be a direct threat to public health, when the alternative is that these people won’t be able to afford to get tested,” Sutton said.
Bryce Pollack is a staff writer for The Triton.