A Year in the Time of COVID

This March at UCLA, we are marking the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. The year has tested us with hard choices and difficult losses, as the virus has exposed inequities in our health care delivery system and brought economic hardship to many. Maintaining six feet between yourself and others, a pandemic requirement, seems to go against the very idea of college life. Yet UCLA approached the challenge with grit and determination to make the best of the situation we found ourselves in. Although campus is too quiet, together we have built a virtual community, and our UCLA spirit remains strong.
Way back in December 2019, UCLA Health’s Infectious Diseases and Clinical Epidemiology & Infection Prevention team began seeing signs of a new, highly contagious virus. By early 2020, concerned by the threat of a global pandemic, the team alerted UCLA’s senior leadership and began planning their response. Following California’s first official COVID-19 death, on March 4, the next few days — then months, and now one full year — would be a confusing whirlwind of events postponed, facilities closed and services suspended.
The memorable month of March began much as usual — but one sign of the changes to come was the disappearance of toilet paper and cleaning products from store shelves. UCLA, and four other UC campuses, were among the first in the country to offer in-house COVID-19 testing, as early efforts to stop the spread of the disease were slowed by a lack of tests.
On March 10, Chancellor Block’s announcement to move finals and the first two weeks of spring quarter online because of safety concerns came as a surprise to many, as students and administrators planned for the unknown. UCLA is home to students from all 50 states and over 100 foreign countries; many worried they would be stranded if flights shut down.
Chancellor Block spoke about what, at the time, was to be a short break from campus — one year later, his words still ring true. “This will not be a perfect transition; however, it will not change who we are and what we do. It will also never compromise UCLA’s impact in our community and the broader world.
How we react and work together in times like these help define who we are,
and I have no doubt that the Bruin community will once again rise to the occasion as we transition to our second century.”
A sense of the confusing new reality set in when, on March 11, several events unfolded. To start, the World Health Organization declared coronavirus a pandemic and public health officials announced Los Angeles’ first known coronavirus death. That night, as fans watched from the arena and on television, the NBA abruptly suspended its season. Fifteen minutes later, President Trump announced restrictions on travel from Europe to the United States, leading to chaos at airports. Then came an announcement from international movie stars Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson that they had tested positive for COVID-19.
These events led into what would become a series of disappointing cancellations and postponements. As the Jackie Robinson Stadium parking lot became a drive-thru COVID-19 testing center, on March 12, the Pac-12 Conference made the decision to cancel all competitions and championships mid-season — men’s basketball had been hoping to make it to March Madness; women’s basketball was projected as a No. 2 seed for bracket play; and UCLA Gymnastics had just one more meet in the regular season.
"Even in the midst of great disappointment, we must all keep in mind the bigger picture; the health and safety of our community is the most important thing at this time,”
said Dan Guerrero ’74, former Alice and Nahum Lainer Family Director of Athletics.
As students adjusted to new ways of learning and professors to new ways of teaching, on March 13, remote learning was extended to the entire spring quarter. Ensuring lower-income students had equipment to work at home was a priority, and the Bruin Tech Award campaign was launched as alumni gave both monetary and moral support. Patricia Turner, senior dean of the UCLA College of Letters and Science, pledged her $90,000 discretionary fund to provide technology for students in need, as did other deans and department heads. Turner told UCLA, “We’ve heard from a lot of donors about how grateful they are to have a chance to help. There is a story behind almost every gift. People are writing on the website’s donor wall and dedicating their gift to a specific teacher or department, some UCLA entity that was instrumental in that giver’s life. It’s very moving.”
On campus, UCLA allowed students to terminate housing contracts early, and 80% of students in residential halls moved out. Of those who stayed, many didn’t have better options. Facing a class that would meet at 3:30 a.m. if he returned to Hong Kong, senior Dylan D’Souza chose to remain in Westwood for his last quarter. Senior Kathy Quach, who had already signed a one-year lease on a Westwood apartment said,
“I had a lot of plans for spring quarter that were ruined because of COVID-19, but I think this is also a blessing in its own way.
I was able to slow down and take a breather.”
The second half of March was nearly as chaotic as the first, and, at times, felt endless. As UCLA had its first two COVID cases — one staff member, one student — staff members began working from home as early as March 13, as the university transitioned to a mostly remote environment. The return date would become a moving target, as the original plans to return were extended several times out of concerns for staff safety.
To slow the spread of the virus, on March 19, California became the first state in the nation to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a “safer at home” order for the city and county. Life as we knew it changed almost overnight as restaurants became take-out or delivery only; Disneyland closed; the Archdiocese of Los Angeles suspended in-person mass and Los Angeles County closed beaches, bars, movie theaters and gyms.
In these early pandemic weeks, in-person events were cancelled at a time when community became more important than ever. The university moved quickly to build a virtual community. Zoom, unfamiliar to many, would soon become an important, and daily, tool. UCLA Alumni Affairs, committed to supporting the needs of our worldwide network of Bruins, began to hear from alumni about their pandemic stress. To help with stress reduction and well-being, Alumni planned a mindfulness webinar that was so well attended it became a series.
In March, 2020 new words added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary included:
  • Contact tracing: identify and monitor those who’ve had contact with an infectious person
  • Community spread: spread of a contagious disease within a community
  • Super-spreader: one who is highly contagious and transmits disease to many others
  • Social distancing: safe practice of keeping a physical distance of at least 6 feet
  • Self-quarantine: to refrain from any contact with other individuals for a period of time
  • UCLA Health is a leading health care system, and our hospitals are among the best in the country. Their mandate was clear — use their many strengths in innovative ways to combat COVID-19. Scientists created a faster, more affordable COVID-19 test and have been leaders in running clinical trials to discover the best treatments for COVID-19. An early clinical trial evaluated the antiviral drug remdesivir, originally developed as a treatment for Ebola. Dr. Otto Yang, a professor in the division of infectious diseases at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA said one benefit of being at the forefront is that, “...intensive care physicians have a better understanding of the disease and the management of it in terms of optimizing supportive care.”
    UCLA Alumni also began a campaign to thank our #BruinHeroes, spotlighting Bruins on the frontlines of fighting COVID-19. We also shouted out our Bruin Helpers, those who helped out communities in need, exemplifying the best in our humanity. From Ana Ramos ’10, a registered nurse caring for COVID-19 patients in critical condition, to Glen Meyerowitz, M.S. Exp. ’21, a graduate electrical and computer engineering student who built a low-cost ventilator in a week, these individuals are using their talents for the common good.
    As we worked to rebuild our community in a virtual space, UCLA Alumni hosted events that tackled some of the big issues of the time. Alumni’s Career Conversations program helped those facing job insecurity with career and professional offerings. The UCLA Alumni Veterans Network (VetNet) stepped in to aid veterans, who face a unique set of career challenges. The helpful guide How Remote Learning Works assisted students and parents, stating, “Being physically separated from the rest of the campus community just isn’t quite the same... Nevertheless,
    every member of the Bruin community strives to make the most out of this situation,
    learning as they go, lifting one another up and continuing to uphold True Bruin values.”
    UCLA is a global leader in cutting-edge science and its real-world application. One example is our partnership with Beyoncé’s BeyGOOD initiative, an online COVID-19 Care Package to help people struggling with stress and anxiety brought on or worsened by the novel coronavirus pandemic. In addition, UCLA has made counseling services available to students, staff and faculty struggling with pandemic stress.
    In May, in the midst of the pandemic, the United States erupted in the largest mass protest movement in our history. The deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd catalyzed a sweeping call for racial justice across the country, heightened by the growing awareness that the pandemic disproportionately affected communities of color. Hundreds of students, UCLA staff and community members gathered to honor victims of police brutality at a protest on campus.
    As California began a cycle of tightening and relaxing lockdowns based on the rise and fall of cases, the return date for UCLA staff working from home was extended through Jan. 4, 2021. The Student Alumni Association (SAA) leaders also decided that Spring Sing, UCLA's oldest and greatest musical tradition, would go on virtually. “This is yet another phase of life; one that reflects our global circumstances, allows us to stay in and keep ourselves and our neighbors safe, and utilizes our ability to connect from anywhere in the world to spread joy amidst such isolating and disheartening times.”
    Although they could not gather together for the traditional ceremony, UCLA wanted to celebrate the Class of 2020. The university hosted its first ever remote graduation, coming together virtually to celebrate our graduates and their loved ones. On June 12, the UCLA College class of 2020 honored 8,800 students scattered across the globe. Chancellor Block said, “This year has stirred our fears, and ignited our courage. Amidst tragedy we are inspired to ask how we can create a better world.” Alumni Affairs created a message board with more than 500 videos, messages and photos from loved ones to congratulate the class of 2020. Car parades replaced graduation parties, like they would for birthdays, weddings and baby showers.
    Soon, we were becoming accustomed to new virtual traditions. As the coronavirus surged, and the annual Los Angeles Gay Pride parade and Proudfest were cancelled, UCLA Lambda alumni organized an Inside Pride Parade to give UCLA’s LGBTQ+ community a place to celebrate their pride and honor LGBTQ+ icons who changed history.
    In another pandemic milestone, on July 4, 2020, Californians celebrated the Fourth of July without parades or big family get-togethers. In more promising news, we learned that both Pfizer and Moderna began large-scale trials of potential COVID-19 vaccines.
    One of the hard realities of the COVID-19 pandemic is the resulting economic impact.
    The University of California system determined they lost more than $1.9 billion in revenue from March through August.
    Led by a decline in housing and dining, UCLA lost more than $650 million, the most of all the UCs.
    The pandemic has exposed the systemic roots of health disparities. Research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that Black and Latinx groups are being disproportionately impacted by the disease. UCLA is working to combat this inequity. In one example, the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health created the COVID-19 Rates and Risk Factors by California County, a public resource to understand and advocate for more community support.
    The pandemic has also led to an increase in verbal and physical attacks against Asian Americans. UCLA School of Law professor Jerry Kang said, “What COVID-19 has done is put a stark punctuation mark on things that many already knew.” UCLA basketball player Natalie Chou spoke with ESPN, “We are all facing a common enemy. Not a person, not a country, but a thing — a virus. And we need one another to get through this...
    We can — we must — do better in our words and our actions toward all people — those who look like us and those who do not.”
    As concerns mounted over COVID’s long-term health impact, including the risk of inflammation of the heart muscle, the Pac-12 Conference made the decision to postpone all fall intercollegiate athletics competitions. In early August, Barbara Ferrer, director of L.A. County's public health department, illuminated the need for stricter safety protocols with her announcement that eight UCLA football players tested positive for COVID-19. UCLA Football players had been demanding a “third-party health official” be on hand to ensure COVID-19 protocols were being followed.
    The 2020-2021 academic year began on Oct. 12. Because of safety concerns over rising cases of COVID-19, UCLA shifted to remote learning for fall quarter 2020-2021, with limited housing available for students. UCLA’s Economic Crisis Response Team jumped in to aid students facing financial hardship. International students faced a specific set of challenges and UCLA’s Dashew Center for International Students and Scholars was a resource for their unique needs.
    To build his connection with the community, incoming UCLA Alumni president D’Artagnan Scorza ’07, Ph.D. ’13, began hosting a monthly town hall — an open forum to discuss issues affecting the University. Scorza told UCLA Magazine, “I love this university... My commitment to the Alumni Association is to help others share their love of UCLA and find ways to give back to our Bruin family.” His first guest, UCLA Administrative Vice Chancellor Michael Beck, discussed in detail how COVID-19 is impacting the campus.
    The holidays passed in our “new normal” as rising COVID-19 cases put health care systems in danger of overcrowding. UCLA kicked off a shortened football season in an empty stadium and families celebrated Thanksgiving by sharing a virtual meal together on Zoom. At UCLA, we celebrated as UCLA Health began administering Pfizer vaccines on Dec. 16, as frontline health care workers cheered.
    The winter holidays approached and Los Angeles entered the darkest days of the pandemic. On Dec. 17, Southern California ICU beds were at 0% availability amid a COVID-19 surge, while the United States was losing more than 4,000 lives to the virus each day. UCLA shut down to all but the most essential workers, as Los Angeles County encouraged residents to wear masks inside their homes. Most Californians celebrated the holidays at home, or in their cars visiting light displays and drive-in religious services. In January, UCLA extended remote-learning to the spring quarter, and employee remote work through the end of the fiscal year, June 30, 2021.
    By mid-January, Los Angeles County had surpassed 1 million cases of COVID-19, and more than 15,000 COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic. By Jan 14, scientists estimated that one-third of L.A. County residents had been infected with the coronavirus. On Feb. 23, flags were lowered to half-staff and Americans observed a moment of silence, as
    the U.S. passed the sad milestone of 500,000 COVID-19 deaths, a national tragedy unimaginable one year ago.
    At UCLA, the loss of business and revenue continues to mount —the school has had to cancel summer camps, conferences, sporting events, and student housing and dining. UCLA Athletics posted a $21.7-million deficit for 2020 as Under Armour told the university it wants to terminate its $280 million apparel endorsement deal. While there is a hiring freeze across many departments, thanks to previously prudent financial management, Chancellor Gene Block committed that career employees would not face COVID-19-related layoffs through June 30, 2021. A report published in January found that UCLA provides and supports 108,050 jobs, the third-largest public sector employer in Los Angeles County, and contributed nearly $16.6 billion in annual benefit to the economy in 2018–19.
    A light began to appear at the end of the pandemic tunnel, as UCLA, and the UC system, announced plans to return to campus in fall 2021. While details remain to be announced, with an increase of COVID-19 vaccines and advancements in research, UC President Michael Drake said,
    "Current forecasters give us hope that in the fall, our students can enjoy a more normal on-campus experience."
    Even amid the COVID-19 pandemic, freshman applications grew by 28%, making UCLA once again the most applied-to university in the nation.
    Newly sworn-in President Joe Biden promised to administer 100 million vaccine doses during his first 100 days in office. Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (LACDPH) opened five large-scale vaccination sites, including the Forum, Dodger Stadium and Six Flags Magic Mountain, to begin vaccinating those age 65 and older to help stem the surge of COVID-19 cases. At UCLA, administrative and medical leaders began holding virtual town halls for faculty, staff and students to share updated COVID-19 vaccination information and answer questions.
    In a hopeful move, on Feb. 22 the LACDPH announced they would begin easing some restrictions for universities. UCLA may be able to reopen libraries, art galleries, performing arts studio and practice spaces and some outdoor recreation facilities.
    Signs of Bruin strength and resilience are the light that has guided us through these dark days — students volunteering to tutor the children of healthcare workers; NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ’69 donating 900 pairs of safety goggles to UCLA Health frontline heroes; Patricia Gastelum ’96, a bilingual coordinator at a public school, who sewed face masks she gave to those in need, including food service workers at the UCLA Ronald Reagan Medical Center.
    Since UCLA’s founding in 1919, the world has seen periods of immense suffering and turmoil — the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and 9/11 — each global event leading eventually to transformation and growth. The collective strength of Bruins throughout the COVID-19 pandemic will ensure we come through this stronger, and ready to tackle future challenges. Go Bruins!

    Everyone was affected by this pandemic in countless ways. We are collecting stories from alumni on how COVID-19 has affected you, your loved ones, your personal and professional life, in both positive and negative ways. The stories will be curated and published in a future edition.