University of Illinois building monitors inconsistently enforced access while campus COVID cases surged

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A vacant building monitor desk in the School of Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics in Urbana.

To mitigate infection, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had to utilize several novel technologies, yet lack of staff availability to enforce this technology may have contributed to the surge of COVID-19 in the later months of the fall semester.

It started with the saliva-based COVID-19 test being developed and put into effect for students to test multiple times a week before vaccines were widely available. Accompanying it was an app-based system to monitor infection and allow employees to approve or deny campus building access: SAFER Illinois.

The security intended by the application is offset by the availability of Wellness Support Associates (WSAs), who check each person entering for an approved building access status using SAFER Illinois.

Jake Delgado, a senior working for the University as a WSA checking building access, said they have been randomly placed throughout campus based on their schedules and availability, meaning not every building had equal enforcement during the semester.  

Last fall, there were about 300 Wellness Support Associates. During the spring 2021 semester, the number of associates decreased to 200. But in the fall semester this year, there were about 320 of these employees checking building access.

There were 155 new cases of COVID-19 reported after the last week of classes in early December, almost the same amount reported in all of October.

Data cross-referenced from IDPH shows that as of December 5, 95% (29,411) of undergraduate students, 97% (10,535) of graduate students, and 89% (9,324) of faculty and staff are fully vaccinated. This is higher than the Champaign County average, which is slightly more than 60%.

Associate Chancellor for Public Affairs at the University, Robin Kaler, said, “This semester’s approach to testing compliance is overwhelmingly digital. The university is monitoring daily testing logs for compliance. After one missed test, students are sent an out-of-compliance text message and email. A pattern of noncompliance results in discipline.”

Sydney Wood, a junior at the University, was one student who was concerned about the University’s COVID response, but said she trusted the University to do its best in this situation. Wood has reported being checked once out of every 15 times she entered buildings on campus throughout this past semester. Other students have reported they were never stopped once at an entrance. 

“The University says they’ve done a lot to ensure students’ safety this semester, but their words differ from their actions,” Wood said. “I hope that a lot of students and faculty are actually vaccinated, but I’ve seen some students on the Quad advocating for religious exemptions from mandatory vaccines, so I felt unsafe sometimes in class or at other University-sponsored events.” 

The system was in use during the spring semester, a time when many students were remotely taking some, if not all, of their classes. But by this fall, the University of Illinois decided to resume in-person classes with precautions, and enhanced the application to also record vaccination status. 

Professors, advisors, and all school faculty are now permitted to request to see a person’s building access status before entering any on-campus building or housing.

Sheila McCormack, an undergraduate teacher’s assistant for Materialism and Construction Systems, said she feels that the school does not use Safer Illinois App checkpoints in front of buildings as much as they have in the past.  

“We are working hard as a student body to keep up good testing habits, but we have definitely been lacking in our Safer Illinois app checks,” she said. “I sometimes think this is the root of the issue when it comes to infecting within closed doors.”

McCormack said she wonders when the University will require students to receive their vaccine boosters to be considered fully vaccinated and have full building access privileges without having to get tested every other day.

“I recently got my booster and so did a lot of my friends,” McCormack said. “If the boosters are FDA approved, they might as well make it an additional step for students to have a green light on their Safer Illinois Apps to get into buildings.”

The University has sent various emails to the student body strongly encouraging students and faculty on campus to get their COVID-19 vaccine booster. This week it decided to delay spring semester in-person classes by a week so faculty, staff and students had to time to be tested.

According to the CDC in November, people of ages 18 and older who received their Pfizer-BioNTech or the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are eligible to get any FDA approved booster shots. Those who received their Janssen COVID-19 vaccines are also eligible to get any of the authorized vaccine boosters in the U.S. 

The I Hotel and Conference Center and select pharmacies in the Champaign area are currently allowing walk-ins on select dates for vaccine booster shot immunizations. The McKinley Health Center is also offering vaccine booster shots by appointment only, which can be scheduled in the McKinley Portal. 

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