Inside the UC Davis COVID bubble, where testing and support is free

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Rosalie Atkinson

Many college towns dreaded students returning this semester, possibly bringing COVID-19 with them. However, the University of California, Davis came up with a plan to try to keep the town safe. It offers free coronavirus testing and quarantine housing not just to students and university employees, but to the nearly 70,000 Davis residents too. 

The program, known as the The Healthy Davis Together project, has turned the city into its own bubble. It seems to be working. The program has caught more than 800 asymptomatic cases so far. But it has also cost about $14.5 million. 

Brad Pollock directs the Healthy Davis Together project. He’s chairman of UC Davis’ Department Of Public Health Sciences. 

He says the project has been going on since mid-September, and all students moving into on-campus residence halls are required to take part. Since mid-November, the program has been able to detect 150 asymptomatic coronavirus cases.

“These are people that were walking around that didn't know they were infected, and were capable of spreading the virus,” Pollock says. “By alerting them, doing the contact tracing to identify people they may have come in contact with, and then getting them triaged over to isolation services and/or quarantine services, we were able to, we think, keep people off the street and reduce the transmission rates.” 

People enter Veterans Memorial Center in Davis, California for free COVID-19 tests, organized by the Healthy Davis Together project. January 28, 2021. Photo by Sue Peri for Healthy Davis Together. 

The program has also enlisted at least 275 undergraduate students as public health ambassadors who help educate people about COVID-19. In exchange for their service, students receive money and class credit. Ambassadors walk through campus and the community, approach individuals without face coverings, and offer a free mask. 

In the last week, the project opened a third community COVID-19 testing site, where ambassadors are using incentives like gift cards to persuade folks to sign up for a test. 

Today, Pollock sees the program as a blueprint for how to track and contain COVID-9 cases in large college towns. 

Detecting COVID-19 cases in the community

Pollock says it’s unclear whether the 850 cases they’ve caught has prevented large outbreaks, but he points out they’ve prevented some viral spread. 

“Remember, one infected person [prompts] maybe two to three other people [to] get infected, right? So you've maybe stopped that. And those people infect, on average, maybe three people,” he says. “Saving every single potential case has that magnified effect.”

In order to get the most accurate snapshot of coronavirus cases in the region, Pollock says tests are typically processed within 24 hours.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, the county was getting test results for people that actually got tested seven days earlier. ... If you're trying to contact trace people that were basically positive seven days earlier, it's too late, the cat’s out of the bag.”

After a positive COVID case is identified, each individual is contacted and receives any necessary medical attention or accommodations for self-isolation. That includes providing food and housing services. 

“You have to have the testing working in lockstep with the contact tracing and the isolation quarantine opportunities to have this thing be effective,” Pollock says.



  • Brad Pollock - chairman of the UC Davis’ Department Of Public Health Sciences, and director of the Healthy Davis Together project