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UA tells students to 'shelter in place' as campus COVID-19 cluster grows

President Robbins blasts 'blatant disregard for public health,' warns partying students of 'drastic changes'

"Blatant disregard for public health" has University of Arizona officials saying students should "shelter in place" for 14 days to slow the growth of a COVID-19 cluster — which is especially apparent in student housing towers.

There is a "clear subset of individuals — primarily students — who are not following the rules," said UA President Robert Robbins on Monday morning. He said the warning to limit social interactions for two weeks is a "last-ditch effort before we have to make some really drastic changes to how we're dealing with this blatant disregard for public health measures."

The UA may have to abandon holding even limited in-person courses if students don't stop "really terrible behavior," said said Dr. Richard Carmona, the former U.S. surgeon general who is leading the UA's coronvirus efforts.

Guest op: Kozachik: Fool's errand to rely on 'hope' to end UA coronavirus outbreak

UA and Pima County officials were vague about the details of the shelter-in-place warning, saying more information would be released later in the day. Pima County may enforce the advisory with an order, but "we are still in the process of defining" the boundaries, said Dr. Theresa Cullen of the county Health Department, who described it as a "self-quarantine recommendation" during a press conference Monday morning.

According to a county document drafted later in the day, the boundaries of the self-quarantine zone are between 6th Avenue on the west, Campbell Avenue on the east, between 10th Street to the south and Helen Street on the north.

An order with penalties for violators may be set by county officials if students do not comply voluntarily, government sources said. Robbins said Monday that Pima County may declare a firm quarantine in a week if students don't heed the warning.

"We don't want to go there... unless we absolutely have to," said Carmona.

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The county memo, written by County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, said the shelter-in-place recommendation will last through at least September 29.

There has been a doubling of Arizona patients in isolation beds since September 8, said Cullen. There has been "accelerated transmission... around the university that is very concerning to us."

"We are taking this approach of a recommendation" to start, Cullen said. "Our toolbox does extend" to stronger orders, she said. "We are looking at what other potential actions the county could take."

In just one of the student high-rise apartment buildings next to the university, Hub Tucson on North Tyndall Avenue, there have been 45 positive cases among the 490 residents "in the limited testing we have been able to conduct," City Councilman Steve Kozachik.

"The likelihood is the virus is already spreading throughout the building at an alarming pace," he said.

There were 133 positive coronavirus cases identified by UA Campus Health testing over the weekend, Kozachik said, with a positivity rate of 8.8 percent. Since the beginning of September, campus officials have IDed nearly 670 positive cases at the university, said Carmona.

The results of county-led testing at UA fraternity and sorority houses included some Greek chapters with 40 or even 60-plus percent of tested residents being positive for COVID-19, according to data sent by County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry to the Board of Supervisors on Monday.

There have been 240 on-campus COVID-19 cases, with 530 off-campus cases. There are 176 students quarantined in dorms set aside for infected students, with 53 more students quarantined off the UA campus, and 6 off-campus residents who are quarantined in dorms. A third dorm is being set aside as a quarantine facility as the UA outbreak grows.

Arizona now has 208,725 positive reported coronavirus cases, the latest figures released by state health authorities showed, with 213 new cases reported Monday morning. Sunday, 384 new cases were reported. In Pima County, there have been 22,511 confirmed infected people, an increase of 61 in Monday's report. There have been 5,322 COVID-19 deaths in Arizona; 602 deaths were in Pima County. No new deaths were included in the latest update.

'Last chance'

Robbins said that the increase in cases was largely the result of "the selfish behavior of a few individuals who are gathering in large gatherings." Students "came back and started partying" after the summer, he said Monday.

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"There have been individuals expelled from the university" for violating code of conduct rules related to the outbreak, Robbins said. "This is a big problem" that's more important than "just your individual desire to go out and party."

The shelter-in-place rule applies to those students "living on or near campus," the UA president said, "particularly those in congregate settings such as high-rises and mini-dorms."

Students should only leave their dorms or other housing to attend "limited" required courses and to obtain necessary food and medical care, Robbins said.

According to Huckelberry's Monday memo, the county is ordering all apartment buildings and other communal housing with more than 10 unrelated residents within the quarantine area around campus to:

  • Close pools and spas
  • Close recreation and game rooms, along with gyms and fitness centers
  • Prohibit gatherings of more than 10 people

"If these steps fail to reduce the rate of transmission then more formal, legal quarantine measures will be taken," the county administrator emphasized.

Kozachik said that faulty rapid tests gave some students a false sense of confidence.

"Some of the students we tested reported false negative results from the rapid result antigen test they took on the UA campus immediately prior to testing positive with the more accurate PCR test we administered," Kozachik. "Acting on that false sense of security, they co-mingled with roommates and others not only inside the apartment building, but out in the community. While on site doing the testing, we observed residents pack into Uber cars, heading out for the evening. Pizza deliveries were common. Community spread is clearly tied to the conditions within not only Hub Tucson, but other high rises in that area."

"During a Zoom meeting with Hub management, Pima County Health and Rescue Me Wellness which lasted over an hour on Saturday afternoon, I requested building management mandate 100% testing for all of their residents," Kozachik said. "They declined, citing restrictions in their leases."

"The UA can, and should exercise the leverage they have to compel testing by immediately issuing a directive that prevents any student from continuing to participate in any form of classroom instruction, including virtually, until they have produced a negative COVID-19 test result coming from a reliable PCR test, and that process must be repeated every 3 weeks until the end of the semester," the city councilman suggested.

"We've seen pictures of the pool parties at the high-rises and other places, and that's where the virus has spread," Robbins said.

"Pima County will issue orders to shut down swimming pools at the high rises and is exploring legal means by which individual rooms may be quarantined," said Kozachik. "Management must provide isolation rooms for students during their 14-day restricted movement time, and they must immediately close all common areas within each of the buildings. That will be problematic because each of these buildings has leased to nearly 90 percent building capacity. The city and the UA must make off-site isolation room options available if space does not exist within a given high rise."

Closing pools and spas near the college is "under intense consideration," Pima County's Cullen said.

If the outbreak at the university continues, the school may go all-digital, Robbins said.

"I hope we don't get to that; that's where we're headed," he said.

"This is your last chance," he told students.

'Test everyone'

The tests organized by Kozachik at private student apartment complexes had "just under a 20% positive rate," he said in a news release following the UA press conference. "And it does not include the contact tracing tests that are still not back from the roommates of the students who tested positive while the team was in the building."

"We need to test everyone and isolate the sick ones. Otherwise, we will see this spread throughout the community," he said. "And the county is looking at its legal options for going in right now and quarantining every room where there’s a positive, isolating the one who tested and quarantining the roommates."

"That's all getting legal, and I'm afraid, will take too long. The answer is the UA has to mandate that everybody who comes onto campus or taking classes virtually must have a valid PCR test within 48 hours of arriving, or they will be turned away. That PCR test is not what they've been giving to students to allow them into the on-campus dorms," he said.

"False negatives are an issue because a person believes he/she is safe to mingle in crowds. In fact, we learned that some of the students who did the false-negative rapid test attended a large birthday party at the apartment complex. It was after the party that they received our test result and understood that they had just potentially infected their friends," said Kozachik, who works for the UA Athletic Department in addition to his elected position. "We have also heard from varying student sources that when inside the elevators in these towers, crammed together, the masks come off. In a poorly ventilated space with sick kids, the virus does what it does."

Kozachik said anyone who sees large parties taking place can phone the UA "party hotline" at 520-282-3649, and also alert the Tucson Police Department's Red Tag unit at 520-837-7318. 

Despite the smaller numbers of young people who end up hospitalized due to the coronavirus, "this is an infectious disease that can kill people" and students can spread it to those who are vulnerable, Carmona said.

It can also harm "people who are (otherwise) healthy who get an infection in their heart," said the former surgeon general, who attributed "social activity over Labor Day weekend" for a significant uptick in cases.

"We can never be complacent until this is extinguished," Carmona said.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

The Hub private student housing tower next to the University of Arizona, Sept. 13, 2020.