The campus masking policy lifted this week, bringing the promise of a direction toward normalcy on our campus. Still, there are concerns, especially among those immunocompromised, about how to protect yourself against COVID-19 as requirements for masks are loosened. 

Our Science & Tech section sat down with Dr. Vejas Skripkus, M.D. who is the executive director of UC Santa Barbara Student Health, to answer questions submitted by readers last week. 

How safe is it if you’re wearing a KN95 in a room full of unmasked people? Is it worth it to wear a mask if no one else is wearing a mask? 

“A respirator like the KN95/N95 offers the best additional recommendation to protect against acquiring COVID-19,” Skripkus said. There are still lower odds of a positive COVID-19 test result if a mask is worn among others who are not wearing a mask, although there is less protection than there would be if everyone was wearing a mask. Being up to date with COVID-19 vaccinations, according to Skripkus, is of the utmost importance when considering how to protect yourself against COVID-19. 

Does taking your mask off just to get a sip of water make a big difference in terms of exposure?

No, it doesn’t make a big difference. You are most likely to catch COVID-19 if you are less than 6 feet away from an infected individual for more than 15 minutes. 

Are surgical masks still worth it to wear and is it better than no mask at all?

Surgical masks are less effective than KN95 masks but are still better than no mask at all. When you inhale through a KN95 mask, both large and small particles are filtered out. Surgical masks are mainly meant to protect against droplets, and you may still be susceptible to COVID-19 if there are smaller particles in the air. 

Can professors ask us to wear our masks?

“As we enter the next phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, the responsibility for masking will lie on the individual,” Skripkus said. Professors may still recommend students to wear their masks in the classroom, but there are no consequences if students elect not to, as there is no longer a university-wide mask mandate to be enforced. Overall, as we transition to a phase where one’s level of protection against COVID-19 is up to their judgment, it is important to respect people’s wishes and their level of comfort should they ask you to wear a mask, especially those who are immunocompromised. 

What happens if someone in my lecture gets COVID-19?

All students are asked to report a positive COVID-19 test result to Student Health so that an alert can be sent to those in the student’s lectures or sections who may have been exposed to COVID-19. According to Skripkus, Student Health will continue with their contact tracing protocol, and they have quarantine housing in place so that students may isolate themselves until they test negative. Rapid tests are available, along with surgical masks, at locations around campus, including the UCen Bookstore, Loma Pelona Center and all front desks of campus housing and apartments. N95 respirators are available at the UCen Bookstore customer service desk and the Associated Students Pardall Center.

How is UCSB considering the BA.2 omicron subvariant? 

The lifting of the mask mandate comes with careful consideration of the conditions that can help mitigate widespread transmission. “Our campus has a COVID-19 vaccination rate of 98%, which is much higher than that of the surrounding community, making it one of the safest areas of the county to be in.” UCSB’s facilities, including lecture buildings, residence halls and libraries, have been evaluated thoroughly for adequate air flow and ventilation that greatly reduces chances of transmission and infection indoors. Our campus’ COVID-19 response team also collaborates closely with the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department and the Office of the President, and will update mask and distancing guidelines if conditions change. 

How can those who are immunocompromised feel safe when the mask mandates are lifted?

“Individuals who are immunocompromised may continue to wear masks and I would encourage them to do so if they choose to,” Skripkus said. “Masks including N95 masks are available at no costs for all students and employees at various locations on campus. As the CDC guidelines regarding a second booster vaccine dose emerge and the data from other countries such as Israel and Ireland continue to show benefits with receiving an additional booster vaccine dose, I would encourage immunocompromised individuals to consult with their physician to see if receiving an additional booster vaccine dose would benefit their specific situation.”