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UA won't challenge Arizona law blocking mask & vaccine mandates

University of Arizona at 'critical moment' to blunt spread of COVID-19 variant, Robbins says

Hamstrung by a new law that blocks the state's universities from mandating masks and vaccinations, the University of Arizona will rely on a  "layered approach," including voluntary testing, and quarantine dorms to mitigate the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19. 

During a virtual press conference Monday, University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins called the next few weeks a "critical moment," and called on students and staff to wear masks and get vaccinated against COVID-19.

"As we prepare for the start of classes, we recognize the challenges presented to all of us by the Delta variant, which is more contagious than the lineages of SARS-COV-2 that we dealt with last academic year and which is now the dominant strain in the United States," Robbins said. "This is a very critical moment. I know many of us relaxed over the summer, and we had begun to think that the pandemic was well behind us." 

In June, Arizona State University said that students must be vaccinated before returning to campus, and required students to share their vaccination status, or they would face regular testing and a mask requirement. Ariz. Gov. Doug Ducey balked at this requirement, and issued a executive order blocking the policy. Weeks later, the order was put into law by the state legislature, along with a similar bill, HB 2898 that blocked the state's school districts from implementing their own mandates for masks or vaccines.

Notably, the state's private colleges, along with private high schools and elementary schools, are not covered by the state law and have been free to implement their own rules. Meanwhile, Tucson Unified School District said Wednesday that despite the state law, the district would require masks after Pima County hit "substantial transmission" of COVID-19, largely driven by the outbreak of the Delta variant.

On Monday, there were 2,191 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Arizona, and the number of new reported infections in the state  topped 16,800 over the past week. The spike in cases is the largest number of new infections in six months, with new case counts at levels not seen since the beginning of February.

Last week, the chief of Arizona's largest hospital network warned that hospitals have endured an "exponential" increase in COVID-19 since July 1, and that the use of ventilators has tripled.

During a press conference, Dr. Marjorie Bessel, chief clinical officer for Banner Health, said that since July 1, COVID-19 hospitalizations have increased 95 percent.

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Nearly all patients who were hospitalized were unvaccinated, Bessel said, and Banner hospitals were seeing a shift in the age of patients, including about 71 kids who were admitted to "progressive care" units because of COVID-19's Delta variant.

Robbins said that after May's commencement ceremony he thought the University would "in a very different place."

We are just not, so it's going to require intense work by all of us," he said. Robbins said that it was "disheartening to see vaccination and masking as topics of controversy," but that the UA would not follow TUSD's lead and directly challenge the law. "I don't think that we, as the University of Arizona, plan to challenge state law," he said.

The governor and the state legislature had removed "some of the tools that would be effective," he added, but that the UA would "work within the framework of the laws." He said that he was working in "collaboration" with Ducey to keep  campuses open, but added that COVID-19 vaccine is "really the key."

However, Robbins said that he did not know how many students or staff were vaccinated, but that he guessed it was above 50 percent, adding that the UA community would need to get to 85 percent or more to achieve some kind of herd immunity.

"This Delta variant has been a game changer," Robbins said. "We're concerned about this, and there are other variants coming after Delta, so the best way to counteract this is to get people vaccinated."

"If you want to bring this to a halt, we have to come together, and get vaccinated, and practice the good public health practices we have spoken about all year," said Dr. Richard Carmona, former surgeon general and a distinguished professor in Public Health. "Nothing has changed, the only way we are going to get out of this is doing that. If you are relying on waiting for herd immunity, it takes a long time and will be quite costly. We will lose lives, our resources will be depleted, and there will be great suffering in our community."

In June, the University of Arizona closed its state-managed vaccination site after vaccinating nearly 250,000 people. Organizers said that the site needed to close because of decreasing interest. Dr. Theresa Cullen, the director of the Pima County Health Department, said that the site had been essential, but that county data showed the that most of the people who live near the UA site had received their vaccination.

"We're  going to have to push our efforts to where people in the community are," Cullen said on June 25. "The large vaccination sites were great for when people really wanted to get a vaccination site, but we need to reach out to those who are not just hesitate to get a shot, but also may not have the resources to get to a site" like the UA's."

Robbins added that the UA had upgraded ventilation systems throughout campus, installing nearly 8,000 MERV-13 filters—a level 13 filter can pick out smaller particles, including viruses, from the air—in classrooms and office spaces. Additionally, the UA was pushing for testing for COVID-19, including it's continued use of waste-water testing.

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The UA will also require students who test positive for COVID-19 to quarantine, and students can stay at dorms were there are about 150 beds available for those with the disease. However, students can also stay off-campus, Robbins added.

Data from Pima County Health Department shows that there have been 121,281 cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, and while the zip code around the University is not among the county's highest in terms of total cases, there have been about 6,300 cases in the area.

"We need to think of masking, vaccines and other measures as complementary parts of the solution, not separate approaches," Robbins said. "Layering our strategies to minimize the risk to ourselves and others works best."

"I can't mandate either of these things, but it's just good public health practice, we're in a very fluid situation, things are changing rapidly," he said.

United Campus Workers Arizona—the union that represents workers on campus—sent a letter to Robbins on Monday, asking the UA president to require masks, require regular bi-weekly testing for anyone on campus who hasn't been vaccinated, and require vaccinations for most students, staff and faculty. They also pushed for "safer alternative forms" of learning and teaching for staff who "do not feel comfortable returning to in-person learning and working," and asked the UA to provide hazard pay for employees required to be in-person.

"Once again we feel compelled to appeal to you to use your positions as leaders to implement policies that are in the best interests of our community," the union wrote. "To do so, it is absolutely necessary to be guided by strong scientific evidence and a commitment to our core values, which dictate that the university maintain positions on vaccination, masking, and testing that serve the public interest and demonstrate care for one another and our communities."

The group praised the university for setting up its vaccination site, and said that the "success" of the last academic year was the result of options, aided by millions in  technology for remote learning.

The group noted that the Faculty Senate had already called for mask mandate at the UA.

"We also understand that some of what we are asking technically contravenes Governor Ducey’s Executive Order (and HB 2898) that prohibits the mandating of vaccinations, mask wearing, and testing by public educational institutions," they wrote. "However, the Governor’s order directly contradicts established medical science regarding how to best mitigate the pandemic and has been strongly criticized by public health experts," the union wrote wrote. "COVID is not going away any time soon, but there are many ways we can mitigate its effects and spread. If we exhibit bold moral leadership, implementing science-based measures, we can slow the spread and get to a less deadly, less damaging situation." 

"The ideal is, we could require everyone to be vaccinated, we could require everyone to cover their face, we could require many things that other places are doing, but we cannot do here because of state law, and we are obviously we are going to obey the law," Robbins said.

"I have faith in people, they will look out for everyone else around them," Robbins said.

Robbins later added that the surrounding community is "struggling with the balance between personal freedom and choice."

"I just want to emphasize that those choices—think about them carefully, because they not only affect you, but they affect everyone around you," Robbins added. "Even people you don't know."

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UA President Robert Robbins speaks at the closure of the vaccination site on campus.

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