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UA prepares for 'confluence' of flu, COVID-19 & monkeypox

UA prepares for 'confluence' of flu, COVID-19 & monkeypox

Pandemic is 'not over,' University of Arizona's Robbins says

  • UA President Robert C. Robbins during a press conference in April 2020.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comUA President Robert C. Robbins during a press conference in April 2020.

With students slated to return to campus next week, University of Arizona officials pushed for vaccinations and testing to blunt an expected "confluence" of diseases—including flu, COVID-19, and monkeypox.

The COVID-19 pandemic is "not over," they told reporters Monday, pushing for testing and vaccinations to stymie both flu and COVID-19, and calling for increased hygiene to mitigate the spread of monkeypox on campus.

While the coronavirus pandemic has not ended, 'the university is in a better situation since last August," UA President Robert Robbins said during a virtual press conference.

"While transmission of COVID-19 remains persistent around the nation, we have successfully navigated the past two years with continued innovation, support and cooperation from students, faculty and staff," he said.

"We have the tools to continue our success and we know how to use them," Robbins said. "And as a semester begins, we have the confluence of COVID-19, flu season beginning, and the new threat of monkey pox—which has been characterized as a national emergency."

Joining Robbins was Dr. Richard Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon general and UA distinguished professor of public health.

Earlier this month, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra declared a public health emergency and said the Biden administration was taking the disease "seriously," and would work to prevent monkeypox from becoming endemic.

In mid-July, Pima County officials confirmed the first case of monkeypox, and Carmona said there are now 14 known cases. Across Arizona, public health officials have confirmed 170 cases, and public health officials expect cases to increase.

Robbins said Campus Health will make monkeypox test available for student and employees, and the UA is working with Pima County to explore treatment and vaccinations—though supplies are limited nationwide.

In a memo to the Pima County Board of Supervisors, County Administrator Jan Lesher said the FDA recently changed the guidelines for monkeypox vaccinations, allowing a vial to provide up to five doses. Lesher said that under this new guideline, the Pima County Health Department could vaccinate around 3,340 people over the next few months.

Robbins said while monkey pox has often been described as a sexually transmitted infection, it is "possible to contract the virus through other forms of physical contact."

"Transmission of monkeypox is possible through everyday activities such as sharing utensils, linens and being in close proximity to respiratory droplets," Robbins said. "Transmission via contaminated surfaces is also possible, making hygiene even more important."

"The disease while significantly unpleasant, or painful in many cases, does not commonly lead to hospitalization, or death," said Robbins. "The good news is the same public health precautions we talk about for flu, and we talk about for COVID work for this disease of monkeypox as well," Carmona said.

Vaccinations remain 'critical'

Robbins said returning students and employees should pick up a COVID-19 test through the university's Cats TakeAway Testing program.

Since the pandemic began, the university has maintained an expansive testing regime, including free rapid antigen tests and a saline-gargle test developed by UA researchers. The tests help researchers trace COVID-19 cases, and quickly assess the rise of new COVID-19 variants on campus.

Robbins said test kits are available at several locations across main campus.

Robbins also pleaded with students and staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19, or get a booster, if needed.

"Vaccination remains critical and if you have not yet received the vaccine, I implore you, I beg you to make an appointment today," Robbins said. Carmona agreed, calling vaccinations "arguably the most important scientific advancement in the history of mankind."

Both Robbins and Carmona also stressed the importance of the flu shot. "This is a proven vaccination and an important tool in our public health response to the annual flu season," Robbins said.

While the university required masks on campus during the fall 2021 semester, Robbins said face coverings are optional on campus. However, he said people who are vulnerable to COVID-19, or who hope to protect members of their household against the disease, should feel free to wear a mask on campus.

"Given the varying levels of personal risk from COVID-19, I encourage members of the university community to have compassion for one another and be respectful of each other's personal choice about mask usage," Robbins said.

Robbins said MERV-13 filters, designed to remove airborne particles that carry the COVID-19 virus, have been installed in buildings across campus, and that the university has also invested in HEPA filters and emission monitors for classrooms.

"Other elements of the university's response to COVID-19 remain in place and I encourage every member of our community to make the best decision for themselves and their families," he said.

Carmona said people should "not let their guard down" when it comes to COVID-19 because transmission rates are still high. He praised Pima County for vaccinating nearly all those over 65, however, he worried that while about three-quarters of the state has received at least one dose, only about two-thirds are fully vaccinated.

Data from the Arizona Department of Health Services shows the vaccination rate for people under 20 in Pima County for people is just 38.8 percent. Among those 20-34, the rate increases to around 71 percent.

However, the vaccination rate across the state varies widely. Santa Cruz County has vaccinated its entire population and has worked to vaccinate neighboring counties, as well as individuals from Sonora, Mexico. Meanwhile, La Paz County has vaccinated just 44 percent of its population, with the vaccination rate a paltry 21.5 percent for pople under 20 and just under 28 percent for those 20-34. years-old.

Meanwhile, people who haven't gotten the COVID-19 vaccine are more than 9 times as likely to be hospitalized compared to people who are fully vaccinated and have received a booster. Those who haven't gotten the vaccine and a booster are 12 times as likely to die from COVID-19, ADHS said.

Since the pandemic began, there have been more than 2 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Arizona, and more than 30,000 people have died, including 59 people who died last week.

"So overall, I think what our message is we can sort of weather things here, Robbins said. "We're going to start back this semester, with a lot of excitement about people coming back to the university campus—having classes in person, going to sporting events, musical events, plays, and just having a good time—still have to remember please be cautious."

"Wash your hands, cover your face if you have any concerns about being in close proximity where there may be an infection, and get vaccinated," Robbins said. "These are things that are very easy things to do. And I think we'll be just fine throughout the school year."

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