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UA likely to roll back COVID mask mandate next week

University officials waiting to see if decline in new coronavirus cases continues after return from spring break

The University of Arizona will likely rescind its COVID-19 mask mandate, but the shift hinges on a continued decline in new cases on campus as students and staff return from spring break.

During a virtual press conference Monday, UA President Robert C. Robbins and Dr. Richard Carmona—former U.S. surgeon general and distinguished laureate professor of public health—said that the UA will review its requirement to wear face-coverings on campus based on COVID-19 tests through this week, as the university moves to respond to recently announced CDC guidelines on community transmission.

If tests on campus remain in line with the rate across Pima County, the UA will rescind the mask mandate that was implemented in January.

Just before students returned to campus from winter break and the Omicron variant drove COVID-19 cases to dizzying levels, UA officials announced in January that students and staff had to wear surgical or higher-grade masks in all campus indoor spaces.

"Our plan is that beginning Monday, March 21—which is one week from today—masks will be recommended, but not necessary or required for indoor spaces at the university's Tucson and other Pima County locations," said Robbins on Monday morning. 

As the number of COVID-19 cases have declined precipitously, mask mandates have collapsed across the United States.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors allowed their mask mandate to lapse on Feb. 28, and Tucson Unified School District voted last week to end its own mask mandate on March 28.

During the last virtual press conference on Feb. 21, Robbins said he was "cautiously optimistic" about falling COVID-19 rates, but decided to keep the mask mandate in place until after spring break, which ran March 5-11.

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"With the return from spring break, and many students, faculty and staff traveling over the past week, I believe that its prudent to see what level of infection is present among our university community before changing our protocol for the Tucson campus," Robbins said. "Following a week where the members of the campus community all have an opportunity to test, if we see new case counts aligned with the rest of Arizona and Pima County, we will be well-positioned to relax our mask protocols as suggested in the CDC guidance."

"As we go forward and change this masking protocol, some will argue we're way behind the curve here," Robbins said.

However, he said it was "prudent" to announce his intention to change the mandate to help students and faculty prepare. He noted that on Feb. 28, the UA sent out an email campus-wide, noting that "based on improvements of health conditions in Arizona," the need for face-coverings would be reduced in communities that had "low" or "medium" transmission rates, and widespread availability of hospital beds, putting the campus into compliance with the CDC's own update recommendations.

"We will continue to monitor public health conditions for locations throughout Arizona and elsewhere, and we will adjust protocols if we see an increase in testing positivity rates or if community levels return to high levels," Robbins said.

At the end of February, the CDC introduced a new model for issuing community-level health recommendations, putting counties around the country into low, medium, or high-levels of community transmission based on the number of new COVID-19 cases, hospital occupancy and capacity.

Robbins pointed out that this is "exactly what we've been doing for the past two years."

For people in counties with "low" levels, they are asked to stay up to date with vaccinations, and get tested if they have symptoms. For people in "medium" counties, those who are at "high risk for severe illness" are told to consider wearing a mask, and take "other precautions," according to the CDC's guidelines.

Those in communities with "high" rates of community transmission should wear a mask indoors, keep up their vaccinations, and get tested. Officials also said in communities with "high" rates, those who are higher risk for severe illness should consider "additional precautions."

While the mask mandate could be rescinded, Robbins said that the UA will still ask students and staff to wear masks on public transportation, including on Cat Trans. And, masks will still be required in areas where patients, or clinical research subjects are see, he said.

He said that the UA will update signage as needed.

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"As these changes go into place, I want to again emphasize the vital importance of compassion for one another, especially for those who are most vulnerable to this still deadly virus," Robbins said. "To our students, faculty, and staff: Fellow members of our community might ask you to wear a mask when near them in a classroom, office or meeting space. I plead with you, I ask that you respect their needs and be mindful that others have varying levels of risk from COVID-19, not only their own risk but also risk for those who they may be caring for at their homes."

Carmona worried that the UA would be part of what he called a "mask dance," and people may be left confused about the requirements, but the UA was moving to be in compliance with CDC guidelines.

As the virtual conference began, Holly Jensen, the vice president of communications at the UA, noted that she was at the UA's "Wonder House" at the South by Southwest film festival and conference in Austin, Texas.

Robbins pushed UA staff and students to continue to get COVID-19 tests. "I strongly encourage you to get a test if you have not already done so, especially if you have traveled," Robbins said. And, he said the UA will continue to offer tests for students and staff who are planning to travel internationally.

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

Carmona noted that Arizona endured an average of around 13 cases per 100,000 people during a 7-day period, ranking at among the top 20 states for COVID-19 transmission. California's rate is slightly lower at 12 cases per 100,000.

Meanwhile, Pima County's rate is at 11 cases per 100,000, slightly below Maricopa's rate of around 14 cases per 100,000 people. However, it has become increasingly more difficult to analyze cases each week, in part because the Arizona Department of Health Services has shifted to weekly-reporting, abandoning the day-to-day case figures pushed out during the worst parts of the pandemic.

According to ADHS, during the week of Feb. 27, there were 4,326 cases in the state. The last time cases were this low was in mid-June 2021.

Through on-campus testing, the UA identified two positive cases of COVID-19 on Friday, out of 189 tests. Since the beginning on March, the UA had a positivity rate of around one percent, and there were 33 positive cases out of 3,459 tests. Data from the UA, shows that since the spring semester began in January, the UA has conducted 134,581 COVID-19 tests, identifying 5,578 cases since August 2, 2021.

The worst spike on campus was on Jan. 19, when the UA identified 331 cases. 

Driven by the Omicron variant, COVID-19 cases peaked in Arizona with 26,179 reported cases on Jan. 10, according to data from ADHS. 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.

Robbins said that the UA will "adjust protocols" as needed, and the UA will consider shifting policies on sites outside of Pima County, and could raise or lower standards depending on the transmission level.

Data from the CDC shows that just one county, Mohave County, is at a low-level of community transmission. Mohave County has often had high-case loads relative to the population, and has a low vaccination rate hitting just under 43 percent, according to the CDC.

Meanwhile, community transmission remains high in three counties, including Yuma County, La Paz County, and Apache County, located in the northeast corner. Arizona's most populous counties, including Pima and Maricopa County remain stubbornly at "medium," according to the CDC. 

Robbins noted that Maricopa County has managed a lower transmission rate than Pima County, and that on March 7, the UA removed the mask mandate for campuses in Phoenix. 

Toward the end of the update, both Carmona and Robbins looked back on the last two years.

"Bobby it's been over two years now, it's been quite a journey," Carmona said. "I must give a shout-out to our faculty, our staff, who have been incredible in working with us to keep our university safe while we continue all our operations, academic and otherwise."

Robbins thanked students and staff, and said that overall, there have been "no problems" implementing the mask mandate on the UA campus since the winter.

"Once we went through the masking requirements for this year, we've had no problems," Robbins said. Our students have been incredibly respectful."

Carmona also pressed his case for vaccinations, reiterating a point he has made at every virtual conference.

"Darwin told us how this game ends—we get to herd immunity slowly or quickly by accelerating if with vaccines, or naturally people get sick and the death toll and the cost is higher. we know there's going to be other mutations and variants," he said.  "The faster we can get to herd immunity, we'll make it more difficult for that virus to keep transforming, the better off we're all going to be."

Data from Europe shows that an increase in new cases driven by BA2, a slightly altered version of the Omicron variant. In recent weeks, the variant has driven up to 50 percent of cases in Denmark, and the United Kingdom, and it's likely that BA2 will come to the U.S.

However, how BA2 will drive case in the U.S. remains unknown. One model suggests that 73 percent of Americans are immune to Omicron, and that could rise to 80 percent through March, the Associated Press reported.

Data from the ADHS, showed that in January there was a vast difference between people who were vaccinated, and had gotten a booster than people who refused to be vaccinated. People who weren't vaccinated were 11 times as likely to test positive for COVID-19, and 67 times as likely to be hospitalized.

Even more telling, people who were unvaccinated were 180 times as likely to die from COVID-19, ADHS said.

"Vaccines continue to offer strong protection against severe COVID-19 outcomes, but these reports make the strongest possible argument for safe, free, and highly effective booster doses," wrote Don Herrington, the interim director for ADHS. "Research shows that COVID-19 vaccine protection wanes over time, especially in people 65 years and older, and that boosters do a great job of increasing your immune response to protect against COVID-19."

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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.