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Opinion: U of T must play a larger role in reducing the spread of COVID-19

The university should house general public testing centres, provide vaccines
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U of T could do more to help Ontario fight the pandemic. MUKTI PATEL/THE VARSITY
U of T could do more to help Ontario fight the pandemic. MUKTI PATEL/THE VARSITY

The university has taken great steps to protect students from the spread of COVID-19, such as moving most classes online in the fall and providing software for students to report their symptoms. However, as cases rise in Ontario, the university must consider taking a proactive approach in the fight against the pandemic. 

Currently, other than at UTSC, the university does not house general public testing centres, nor has it announced any prospects to personally distribute vaccines to its students. As noted by Executive Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) Dr. Mike Ryans during a virtual press conference, deriving the results from one positive case among 10 negative cases would be a benchmark for testing centres. 

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove noted in the same conference that the reality is that in order for countries to achieve that benchmark, the amount of testing needs to be increased. There needs to be an increase of availability and accessibility to these tests as well. The university, by using its empty lecture halls as testing centres for example, could solve this problem.

A study by Western University, when universities were still considering reopening campuses in the fall, suggested that a path back to normalcy could only occur with “mass and high-frequency testing.” This same aggressive style of testing was recommended by the WHO during the early stages of the pandemic. As Ontario grapples with its second wave, providing extra spaces for general population testing could be vital to fighting the virus’ spread.

According to Professor Colin Furness from the University of Toronto, “There is a good reason why we have flu season and cold season in the winter… In cold, dry weather when you exhale and you can see your breath you are seeing those droplets and the droplets disappear in an instance, meaning the water evaporates so those very live virus particles are floating in the air.” 

Considering the rise of cases around Ontario, we can recognize a consistent trend that aligns with Furness’ assessment. Therefore, it is imperative that, now more than ever, the university takes a more proactive approach in the pandemic.

As the prospect of vaccine distribution to the general public is in discussion, U of T should consider being a space to administer vaccines to students. Postsecondary vaccination distribution is not unprecedented — some institutions, such as Princeton University, have taken a phased approach to vaccinating their students. This not only is a great way to streamline vaccinations, but the U of T name may also help build trust in the general public of the vaccinations’ safety and effectiveness.

Between housing testing centres and becoming a hub for vaccination, U of T could play yet another role in the fight against the pandemic, in addition to the medical contributions students have made. Ontario is facing mistrust in its ability to handle the pandemic but also public mistrust in the vaccine itself — it’s time U of T stepped up and extended a helping hand.

Evangeline Yeung is a third-year English student at UTM.