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UA 'cautiously optimistic' COVID cases will decline, but masks still required on campus

While officials are "cautiously optimistic" about the decrease in the COVID-19 cases over the last few weeks, the University of Arizona will maintain its campus mask mandate and continue to push for vaccinations and testing.

During a virtual press conference Monday, UA President Robert C. Robbins and Dr. Richard Carmona—former Surgeon General and a distinguished laureate professor of public health—said that the UA community should work to "sustain" the decline in cases, even as the UA expects a slight increase in cases following the university's spring break, which runs Mar. 5 - Mar. 11.

Robbins and Carmona both highlighted the importance of public health measures, including vaccinations, hand-washing, social distancing and testing as a way through the pandemic. Carmona also rejected "arbitrarily" removing some of these safeguards because people were tired of the measures, instead he said it's a good idea to continue mask wearing.

Just before students returned to campus in January, UA officials announced that students and staff must wear surgical or higher-grade masks in all campus indoor spaces. Cloth masks no longer met the UA's guidelines, officials said, but they may be worn as a top layer over a surgical mask. The UA also began requiring people attending UA basketball games to wear masks. 

Last week, the Pima County Board of Supervisors declined to extend the county's mask mandate for another month, allowing the mandate—implemented in December as cases began to spike—to expire next week on Feb. 28.

However, Tucson Unified School District and several other school districts have maintained their mandates through this semester.

Driven by the Omicron variant, COVID-19 cases peaked in Arizona with 26,179 reported cases on Jan. 10, according to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services. During the pandemic's previous peak in January 2021, the state reported a record of 12,460 cases in a single day. However, the latest surge topped that record almost daily.

From New Year's Day to the end of January, there were at least 491,431 cases in Arizona, averaging about 12,539 cases per day.

"Things are changing slowly," said Carmona, who noted that the U.S. is approaching 79 million cases, and nearly 1 million deaths from COVID-19. In Arizona, there have been nearly 2 million cases, and over 27,600 people have died from COVID-19.

In Pima County, there have been around 248,000 cases, and about 3,600 deaths.

Carmona said that on-campus testing shows a marked decline in the number of positive COVID-19 tests, dropping from around 10 percent earlier in the semester to around 2.5 percent between Feb. 9 and Feb. 18. He noted that on average, Arizona has around 34 new cases per 100,000 per person, putting Arizona among the top 25 states for COVID-19 infections.

"We're still in the midst of a pandemic, but we're gradually moving away from it," Carmona said. "As the President said, we're heading in the right direction, but we want to make sure that we're not getting complacent."

"So to sustain this decline in cases, and to help ward off another surge, we need to remain diligent and use the tools we have," said Robbins. This includes vaccinations, wearing face coverings indoors, COVID-19 testing, consistent hand-washing, and staying home when people are sick, he said.

"For the university community, this is especially important as we approach spring break," Robbins said. "For any students or employees planning to travel, please make sure to get tested both before and after your trip, and wear a mask when needed. In addition, as much as you can, be aware of the public health conditions in the locales you visit and take appropriate measures to protect yourself and those around you."

Robbins noted that the UA had "various testing options" available. This includes the relatively new saline-gargle-spit test, which can be used rather than nasopharyngeal swabs.

Robbins, a cardiac surgeon, noted that hospitalizations are declining and the availability of ICU beds is improving.

"As we've discussed many times, this is important not only for our ability to care for COVID-19 patients, but also for the health care system's capacity to meet other health needs of our community," Robbins said, including elective heart surgery, elective hip replacement, and on and on."

"This is a move in the right direction and I'm cautiously optimistic for what we will see in the weeks and months to come, in particular for the healthcare system," Carmona said, adding that he hoped there would soon be a "respite for our physicians, nurses technicians and other health care professionals who have worked so hard over the past two years."

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Carmona said that even before the pandemic, "there was a significant burnout in health care providers, and certainly with a pandemic as in all sectors of society."

"There's been an unbelievable toll on the mental health of all of the citizens of the world, but the health care providers have been on the frontline of this and so the hope is we're going to get a break for them sooner rather than later," he said. He added healthcare workers are "exhausted."

"We've been at war for over two years now," he said. "So there's a lot of factors that we have to consider before we just arbitrarily say let's go back to normal, whatever that normal is going to be, because we're still in a problematic situation."

"Again, because of the relatively high transmission rates, it is a good idea to continue to wear your mask," said Carmona. He added that Robbins and the Arizona Board of Regents continue to have discussions about when the state's three universities can let up.

"We understand that people are COVID exhausted," he said. "They just want to put this behind them. They just don't want to deal with it anymore."

"But when we look at the good science, it's telling us hang in there longer," he said. "And we're trying to balance that against the population who want to just desperately get on with life, and not be you know, encumbered with all of these restrictions. So we understand the burden on society. We understand the pain that you're all suffering. We and our families are going through this as well," he said.

"But hang in there with us a little longer, I think we'll be able to come out of this soon," Carmona said. 

Vaccinations may be 'most significant advance' in health science history

During the press conference, both Robbins and Carmona highlighted vaccinations as a way through the pandemic. Carmona noted that across the state, around 71.2 percent of people have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. In Pima County, around 95 percent of people over 65 have received at least one dose. Among children 5-18, that rate is around 84.4 percent, and among those over 18, the rate is around 88.8 percent, Carmona said.

Statewide, officials have given out 10.9 million vaccines, and around 73.9 percent of the state's eligible population is vaccinated. However, the state's overall rate of vaccinations is around 69.4 percent of the population in part because children under 5 cannot be vaccinated.

This ranges significantly between counties from nearly 136 percent in Santa Cruz County—owing to the county's efforts to vaccinate people outside of the county, including people in neighboring Sonora, Mexico—to just 44.5 percent in La Paz County.

Carmona worried that a significant chunk of the county and state remain unvaccinated, and "that presents a risk to them and us."

A population of unvaccinated people makes it more likely that the COVID-19 virus could find a "home" that allows for new mutations that could give rise to new variants, Carmona argued. A new variant could be more more transmissible, more lethal, or could actually make vaccines less responsive.

Vaccinations are "probably the best tool we have in our toolbox now to prevent the transmission of disease," he said, adding that even if people contract COVID-19, a vaccine "keeps you out of the hospital, keeps you off a ventilator, and prevents death."

Multiple studies have shown the effectiveness of vaccines to minimize infection and hospitalizations, including one analysis from ADHS that found that people who didn't get the vaccine were 4.1 times more likely to get the disease, 24 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 57.9 times as likely to die from COVID-19.

Carmona said vaccinations are arguably "the most significant advance in health science in the history of mankind." At first, Robbins demurred, seeking to include the heart-lung machine, which made cardiac surgery—his specialty possible—but, in the end he agreed.

Carmona compares arguments from 1918 flu pandemic to modern era

Carmona also sought to make comparisons between the 1918 flu pandemic, the polio epidemic in the 1950s, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

"You know, moms couldn't get their kids vaccinated fast enough, because they were worried about the iron lungs," Carmona said. "And now, we hardly see cases in the whole world with polio. If COVID had put people in iron lungs, I think we would have had a different take on this thing," he said.

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He also linked arguments from the 1918 flu pandemic to the modern era.

"If you change the dates, it's almost exactly what we've gone through," he said. "Of course, vaccination wasn't really available then, it was different, yet, the polarization of this was so vast the economy issues getting back to work, staying home wearing a mask, not wearing a mask, and yet 100 years later, we went through the same process. You know, history is the prologue to our future."

"We need to do a better job of memorializing these experiences, and providing it as part of education to all of our students, for instance, who are going to go forward so they don't have to reinvent the wheel the next time we have some big challenge like this," he said.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

UA President Robert C. Robbins during an event, announcing the closure of the University of Arizona's vaccination distribution site in June 2021.