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UA will rely on tests, masks to slow spread of COVID-19 as classes begin this week

The University of Arizona will press forward with in-person classes beginning Wednesday despite the rise in COVID-19 cases throughout Arizona caused by the Omicron variant, officials said Monday. 

During a virtual briefing, UA President Robert C. Robbins outlined how the university would attempt to mitigate the spread of new coronavirus cases in Tucson, relying on a new masking policy—which requires staff and students to wear surgical or N95 masks on campus—as well as vaccinations and a widespread testing scheme. 

"Our objective as an institution remains the same: to provide a high quality educational experience for our students, while minimizing the risk posed by the COVID 19 pandemic," he said. "These measures — vaccination, masking, isolation and treatment of positive individuals — all contribute to this goal." 

Robbins also said that the UA had invested in nearly 8,000 MERV-13 filters, intended to decontaminate the air in buildings across campus. 

Robbins, joined by Dr. Richard Carmona—former Surgeon General and a distinguished laureate professor of public health—said that UA officials shared the concerns of the wider community regarding potential outbreaks as students return to school. 

"Certainly," he said, he and Carmona share this concern. "We want to ensure that the university is doing all it can to safeguard public health and to minimize the impact of this latest wave on our university community, the health care system at large, health care providers on the front line of this pandemic and our larger society," Robbins said. 

Since New Year's Day, there are 76,700 new cases of COVID-19 in Arizona, rising to a peak of 17,916 cases reported on Jan. 4, according to figures from the Arizona Department of Health Services. Exactly a year earlier, the last great wave of COVID-19 cases caused cases to spike to just 12,455 cases. 

Last week, Dr. Theresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department warned that the county would face a "stark upswing" in the number of COVID-19 cases, and had an overall case rate of 400 cases per 100,000 people. Additionally, testing in Pima County showed an astoundingly high positivity rate of 19 percent, ranging up to 45 percent at some testing locations. 

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COVID-19 cases continue to increase rapidly across the U.S. On Jan. 5, there were over 705,000 new cases reported, according to the CDC, doubling the January 2021 peak. The CDC said that the 7-day moving average of new daily cases increased nearly 86 percent compared with the previous average, rising from 315,851 cases to 586,391. 

"The entire country is now experiencing high levels of community transmission," the CDC said, noting that hospitalizations are also on the rise. While cases have spiked this winter, deaths from coronavirus have so far remained muted compared to the surge in early 2021. Last January, ADHS reported that 176 people died on Jan. 18, and during that 7-day period, there were around 154 deaths reported each day. This January, just 18 deaths have been reported since the year began.

In total, the U.S. has endured over 57 million cases of COVID-19, and over 834,000 people have died. 

Over the last four weeks, the Omicron variant has become the dominant strain of COVID-19, accounting for more than 95 percent of coronavirus cases by Jan. 1, 2022, according to the CDC. "While early data suggest Omicron infections might be less severe than those of other variants, the increases in cases and hospitalizations are expected to stress the healthcare system in the coming weeks," the CDC said. 

As part of the UA's preparation for the return of students, Robbins said that students and staff must wear surgical or higher-grade masks in all campus indoor spaces. Cloth masks will no longer meet the UA's guidelines, Robbin sad, but they may be worn as a top layer over a surgical mask. 

The UA announced the policy last week, along with a requirement that people attending UA basketball games wear masks. 

Robbins said that free surgical masks will be available at classrooms and campus buildings, and employees can also request them from their building managers, Robbins said. 

"Two years into this pandemic, we have gained significant knowledge about the virus and put in place effective measures at the university," he said. "We know face coverings reduce the transmission of the virus through airborne particles, with evidence indicating higher quality mask are necessary to protect individuals against the Omicron variant." 

He added that N95 masks require fittings to work best. "They're very difficult to breathe through and really are reserved for those high risk individuals and healthcare providers on the front line," he said. 

Masks remain an effective tool in slowing the transmission of COVID-19, and researchers have repeatedly found that mask mandates are effective at limiting the disease's spread. One preprint study published in October found that in 37 U.S. states, and the District of Columbia, mask usage was linked to the reduction of COVID-19 cases. 

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UA will run up to 3,000 tests per day 

The UA will also push for regular COVID-19 testing for employees and students. Students who will stay at campus dorms will be required to test negative within 48 hours of returning to campus, and Robbins said that students who test positive will be required to stay at isolation dorms. 

Robbins said that the UA can host around 300 students in the rooms, but the UA could increase the capacity to about 600. He added that the university was "in talks" with local hotels. Last year, the UA had around 400 students in COVID-19 dorms, he said. 

"So we feel pretty comfortable right now, but you know, I'm really concerned. That's why we're strongly encouraging people to get tests before they make the trip back to Tucson because then they can just isolate at home," he said, adding that if there's a spike the UA will be able to handle the "first wave" with initial testing. "But we're gonna have to watch that very closely," he said. 

The UA has maintained an expansive testing regime since last year, and this semester the UA will make available two tests, including a free rapid antigen test and a saline gargle test that was developed at the UA.

The tests will be available at the former Cactus Grill at the Student Union Memorial Center. The UA will also have take-home testing kits available at several campus locations, Robbins said.

Among students, dorm residents are required to test negative within 48 hours of returning to campus, Robbins said, and isolation dorms are available for those who get a positive result. Robbins said he "strongly recommended" students, faculty and staff to get tested before returning to campus on Wednesday. 

The UA is limited in the total number of tests it can run per day, Robbins said, with a capacity of about 3,000 tests per day. "That's a limitation on supplies as well as personnel to run the tests," he said. He said that take home tests have been "popular," and that they have "really helped with increasing participation and compliance," but overall the UA does not have enough people volunteering for tests.

Union group asks UA to make classes remote 

Last week, the United Campus Workers Arizona, based at Arizona State University and University of Arizona, wrote a letter to Robbins and his counterpart at ASU that said they were "extremely concerned by the inaction of university leadership in response to the rapid, harmful transmission of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 within Maricopa and Pima Counties." 

They wrote that the rise in COVID-19 transmission "threatens the lives and safety of all workers and students on their campuses, and that threatens to overrun our health care system and workers," and they demanded several actions, including a move to virtual classrooms and remote work until Jan. 28 "in order to reduce COVID-19 transmission during the predicted worst weeks of the Omicron surge." 

The group also pushed for ASU and UA to provide free, high-quality respirators campus-wide and mandate their use, require twice-weekly COVID-19 testing, and require COVID-19 vaccinations for students, except those with religious, or medical accommodations, as permitted by federal law. 

Robbins said that the UA could not mandate testing or vaccinations, and that the UA would rely on "approaches for increasing testing" including the use of our wastewater-based epidemiology. Last year, the UA introduced testing that samples wastewater and looks for evidence of COVID-19. 

Robbins said that he would "love" to see testing twice a week, but that the UA remained limited in the number of tests is could give, adding that it's "very difficult to find a test, or find a place to get a test" beyond the UA's own testing regimes.

He almost demurred in answering the call to halt in-person classes until the end of January, saying that the UA is "committed" to starting on Wednesday. 

While this may be the most "contentious" part of the union's demands, Robins said that "we're committed to doing that." 

But, he added that "as I've said all along, we're going to wait and see how how things transpire." He added that the UA will look to see if the Omicron variant "becomes more severe," and to see if "we get overrun with isolation housing issues." 

Robbins also added that the UA will watch local hospitals, including Banner University Medical Center to "make sure that there's still availability in the local hospitals."

But, he added "the facts are the facts. We have had very, very few people who've gotten sick enough in two years to be hospitalized," he said. 

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He added that the "most vulnerable people for getting hospitalized" or getting even a "more severe case" of COVID-19 are the unvaccinated. "So we'll continue to push vaccination," he said. 

Data from the ADHS found that in November those who weren't vaccinated were 31.1 times as likely to die from COVID-19 than those who had received both vaccinations, and were 4.9 times as likely to catch COVID-19. 

"So, Bear Down and mask and vax up," Robbins said. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Dr. Robert C. Robbins, the president of the UA, during a presentation over the summer on the UA's vaccinations site.