International students weigh in on UM’s COVID response

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article contained outdated information regarding the University of Miami’s testing system. Corrections were made on Friday, Feb. 12 at 2:54 p.m to reflect the university’s now weekly testing process.

The University of Miami has decided to continue in-person learning despite reaching more than 800 cases of COVID-19 within the opening weeks of the spring semester. UM’s international students have been forced to choose between learning from afar or risking potential exposure.

“I really think we need to force people to follow the guidelines,” said Abby Gaeva, a freshman biology major from Russia who opted for in-person learning.

“Preventing mass gatherings, wearing masks and socially distancing are small prices to pay to save lives in the long run,” she continued.

Students across campus have had to deal with routine COVID tests, social distancing protocols, quarantines and isolations, with some taking the safety protocols more seriously than others.

Gaeva says she feels that it is up to the students to follow UM’s policies, but that the University is ultimately responsible for managing the case count.

“We all need to recognize that we have a responsibility to both the University and Miami community.”

Angelica Spacapan, a sophomore health sciences major from Italy, says she feels that both UM and the country as a whole could learn a great deal from Italy’s response.

“We got affected first in Italy and everyone stayed inside for those first crucial weeks,” she said. “It helped us through the worst part.”

In March of last year, Italy withstood around 6,500 deaths a day due to the effects of the novel coronavirus. Today, Italy has managed to reduce that number to approximately 450.

Spacapan says she has appreciated UM’s response to the coronavirus.

“UM in particular is handling things well and it’s impressive they found a way to keep campus open with the testing and safety measures it has taken on,” she said.

In October, The Miami Hurricane spoke with Dr. Erin Kobetz, an epidemiologist at UHealth, who is helping lead the university’s testing and tracing efforts.

Students at UM are now tested more frequently, receiving a mandated COVID test every week as compared to testing every 10 days, the previous protocol during the fall semester.

“We also created required contact tracing, so if you test positive you are required to be fully transparent in who your close contacts are,” Kobetz said.

Kobetz particularly emphasized the importance of contact tracing.

“Individuals are set up for testing five to seven days post-exposure so that we know whether or not they developed infection on the basis of exposure and we can get them the needed medical care.”

UM also conducts random testing for faculty and staff.

“We wanted to be robust, so we developed random testing for faculty and essential vendors,” Kobetz said.

“This allows us to appreciate the burden of infection within that demographic of the institution who may be asymptomatic but infected,” she continued.

Kobetz said that random testing is crucial amid the spread of the virus.

“Without randomly assessing infection burden, we miss the opportunity to appropriately approximate what’s happening.”

Juliana Dominguez, a freshman neuroscience major from Brazil, said she feels that the student body needs to continue abiding by safety protocols.

“Although we all want this to end, acting as if the pandemic has already ended is only going to make this unwanted situation last longer,” Dominguez said.

“The virus shouldn’t be treated as if it were a matter of ideology or personal preference. We need to recognize that this is a public health issue, not an individual health problem,” she continued.

Ashley Mendoza, a current sophomore and biology major who serves as an undergraduate biology peer advisor for incoming students, said that with students returning to campus, UM’s safety policies should continue into next year.

“Students will only return if they feel comfortable doing so, but I think fully online options should be available until the end of the next fall semester at the least,” she said.

Mendoza also said she feels that students who prefer to attend online classes should be able to get the full experience.

“There should also be a focus on trying to carry out some things in person if a safe opportunity is available to do so,” Mendoza said. “I think a healthy and reasonable balance is definitely needed for the best social experience.”

Junior remote assistant Fabiana Lara serves as a mentor and resource for incoming remote students and said that UM can still foster interaction between students online.

“Implementing more activities for remote kids could help with engagement and enthusiasm,” she said.

“UM could do more social and club events online using social media more, posting flyers and sending out emails would really help students connect with one another and the university as a whole,” Lara continued.

The university has been promoting its “Preview the U!” events, whereby incoming students or those interested in applying can meet with admission staff, hear from current students and take a virtual tour of campus. The UM School of Architecture, Frost School of Music and Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences have fully immersive virtual tours available for students. UM also hosts numerous weekly Q&A live sessions on social platforms such as Instagram for anyone interested in learning more about the U.

Orientation fellow Trinity Ramos helps new students transition to university life. She said she feels that it would be advantageous for the university to have more coronavirus information sessions.

“Another online coronavirus orientation in the middle of the semester would reinforce information about the virus,” she said.

“The virus is a real threat to our lives, but it can be easy to forget that,” Ramos continued.

Featured graphic by Julia Sanbe.