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SFU student society president calling for expanded access to COVID testing on Burnaby Mtn

A student leader at SFU is calling for easier access to COVID testing for the thousands of people living on Burnaby Mountain, including in university residences, and more transparency when there’s a COVID case confirmed on campus.

Gabe Liosis, president of the Simon Fraser Student Society (SFSS), told the Beacon it’s “extremely problematic” that even with the emphasis public health has placed on COVID testing whenever you’re feeling unwell, there are few testing sites accessible from campus.

“The two closest testing centers for folks who live on Burnaby mountain are the one near BCIT and the one at Coquitlam Central Station, which are both about a 20 to 25 minute drive from Burnaby campus for people who drive,” he said.

“If you’re a student who does not have a car or other means of transporting yourself there, it’s incredibly inaccessible to get a COVID test.”

That leads to people feeling pressure to take transit to and from testing sites (just under an hour to BCIT one way, or just under 40 minutes to Coquitlam Centre), or to ask a friend to drive them—but Liosis said that puts others at risk of getting infected if someone actually does have COVID.

Liosis wants a testing site to be set up on the mountain both for students who live on campus, and for those in the general public who live at UniverCity on Burnaby Mountain.

SFU referred a question from the Beacon about testing site locations to Fraser Health. The health authority, meanwhile, said it was working on a response.

Rapid testing

But Liosis is also calling for expanded access to SFU’s rapid screening program. The program, which took effect last week, provides rapid COVID testing to students and staff who are either not vaccinated or haven’t declared their vaccination status to the university.

“You have the large majority of the student body, which is also vaccinated but doesn’t have quick and ready access to rapid screening in the event that they have symptoms, and would like to kind of have that peace of mind.”

“Frustrating” communications

Liosis said a recent case where an SFU employee posted on Twitter to say they had contracted COVID days after an exposure had occurred in their on-campus workplace, but they hadn’t been notified, was concerning.

He said “everyone’s frustrated” with the quality of communications students and staff are receiving from the university or public health when it comes to COVID’s presence on campus. In conversations early in the school year with SFU president Joy Johnson, the SFSS was told that Fraser Health would be handling all contact tracing.

SFU says public health is in charge of all notifications after positive COVID cases are confirmed, and said contacts will be told directly if they’ve been exposed.

“Instructors, colleagues or classmates, should never share a person’s private medical information, which includes test results or that they are being tested for COVID-19. Instructors and class attendees or students in SFU Residence & Housing or SFU Athletics will be notified by Public Health if it is determined that there is risk of COVID-19 exposure,” the university says on its website.

But the SFU employee who posted on Twitter said part of what irked them was that they were told by Vancouver Coastal Health that it was their responsibility to notify their close contacts.

In an emailed statement, VCH confirmed that that is their protocol in certain low-risk situations. These situations could include cases where a person’s close contacts are fully vaccinated, for instance.

“There is a range of possible follow-up actions, depending on vaccination status and level of contact. Some cases may be given the option of notifying their low-risk contacts and asking them to self-monitor for symptoms,” a representative said.

“VCH has reached out to the case to ensure the appropriate protocol was followed by our contact tracing team.”

Community trackers

Concern around COVID exposure notifications is hardly limited to SFU. In the K-12 system, a pair of moms teamed up last year to collect exposure notices and compile them into an accessible database for concerned parents, called the BC COVID-19 Tracker.

A similar tracker, run by a single student, has emerged at UBC.

Public health has been reluctant to release detailed and timely information to parents and students in both the K-12 and post-secondary systems, citing privacy concerns.

At the beginning of the school year, provincial health officer Dr Bonnie Henry announced that the province wouldn’t release any single exposure notices at schools at all, for fear of adding to parents’ “anxiety.”  That decision was quickly reversed after public outcry.

But Liosis said at SFU, they’ve heard the same reasoning.

“We’ve been told by public health that they’re not putting out notices because it would cause unnecessary anxiety,” he said.

“I think the fact that notices aren’t going out, and that there really isn’t any contact tracing by Fraser Health going on—I think that’s probably more anxiety than not knowing what’s happening in the first place.”

There’s no tracker keeping count of COVID exposures and cases reported at SFU. Liosis said that information should be coming directly from the school.

“That should not fall squarely on the shoulders of students, or parents, or really any other other type of group. That should be done by someone in the university or someone within Fraser Health,” he said.

“Everyone’s tired of contradictory information and having to fight for basic health and safety protocol. It’s not fun to be told that you have to be back for in-person classes in the fall, only for it to feel like not much is happening to protect our safety.”