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

In the past three weeks, I've been both inside some of the student high-rises around the University of Arizona campus, and outside of them flagging down students offering a free saliva PCR COVID-19 test.

Working with Rescue Me Wellness, we've tested over 400 students, most of whom are living in the towers around the Main Gate area. Despite the area being in the heart of Ward 6, which I represent, and despite my having been on site, talking to the students, neither the mayor nor UA administration has asked for my observations. So, I'll share what I know here and they can use it as they wish. At least Sentinel readers will have some context from ground zero.

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

First, the numbers. Combining ours with test results the county gathered through their efforts, there are 45 known positives walking around Hub Tucson, and another 41 walking through oLiv. We also had positive tests come from students who live in Aspire, Hub Speedway, Sol and Urbane.

While I was on site I observed students piling into Uber cars, and personal vehicles heading out for the night. And pity the poor Domino's delivery guy who visits those places multiple times every night.

The message is simply that these kids are spreading the virus out into the community.

Let me say up front that this isn't a "blame the students" message. If you're past that age you know how you/we behaved.

Note to President Robert Robbins and the UA team: begging them to comply with the rules has not worked, and will not work.

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When my mom wagged her finger at me and told me to behave, I did. Until she was out of sight. Then I was a kid again. So while we might want to hope most will comply with rules, it's up to the adults in the room to put the constraints into place to compel the behavior we're after.

At the most recent press briefing, the UA and Pima County offered a "voluntary shelter in place" recommendation for the students.

Here's what I heard from being on site. When students get into the elevators in these high rises, the masks come off. That means kids crammed into a poorly ventilated space and spreading the virus.

I heard one guy who said he knew who he got sick from other residents of the apartments who know they're sick, but who don't want to quarantine.

So they're not getting tested.

And I heard students who said they had taken the rapid-result antigen test on campus and when it came back negative, they felt free to interact with others. These same kids were surprised, and pissed when the more accurate PCR test we were administering came back positive.

Ask someone in the medical community who doesn't have a stake in this and you'll hear that the quick turn-around antigen tests are not meant to be used diagnostically. They yield too many false negatives (as with the students we encountered,) and too many false positives (see the recent news about the UA soccer team.)

So what do we have? Students having tested negative walking around with a false sense of security, students who don't want to be bothered with a 14-day quarantine, and students who violate the house rules as soon as the door closes.

That is not a recipe for expecting compliance with a request to "shelter in place" for the next two weeks. Please understand, it doesn't take hundreds of infected people walking through Safeway, CVS and your favorite restaurant to spread this.

It's a highly contagious virus that is considered of significant concern when infection rates exceed 10 percent in a given congregate setting.

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We likely have at least that in several.

When the UA president says "testing isn't the issue; it's behavior," I agree — until we also recognize that people are not going to behave. Then testing indeed becomes the issue.

We must identify where the outbreaks exist so isolating, quarantining, and tracing can take place. The testing must be appropriate to the purpose; diagostics. That means a PCR test with a 24-48 hour turn around. When the UA moved kids into on-campus dorms, they required each of them to first pass the rapid-result antigen test.

We now know that the approximately 4,000 who crossed that hurdle may have moved in with a false-negative result.

But the point is the UA has successfully used testing as leverage to participate in campus activities. It now must do the same for continued participation, even in virtual classes.

We have seen in the neighborhood of 1,000 new cases identified around campus in the past 10 days. During previous press briefings I've heard leadership "request," "hope," and "beg" students to comply with the simple CDC rules related to COVID-19.

The numbers suggest that the soft touch is not working. At some point leadership must compel behavior. That point is now.

The city and county cannot force students to take a COVID-19 test. The property management of the towers cannot either.

But, as it did with on-campus dorms, the UA has the leverage to require testing. Proper testing. Requiring every student to present a negative PCR test result, one that has been taken within 48 hours of presenting it, prior to taking part in any class activity – including virtual classes – is the only way we will know the extent and location of the outbreaks.

Those tests should be repeated every three weeks until the end of the semester. Without that information, the Pima County Health Department leadership is without the tools it needs to carry out quarantining and tracing efforts effectively. The UA required tests prior to on-campus move-in. It can require testing prior to participating in classes. That is responsible public health policy.

The towers have leased their properties up to nearly 90 percent capacity. That means setting aside isolation floors won't be i. The city and the UA can assist with finding alternate living quarters while the students who test positive isolate.

The tower management can, and must enter each room where an infection has been identified and follow CDC guidelines for deep cleaning.

The EPA has provided lists of appropriate cleaning solutions and protocols. In that work, the UA Facilities Management team can be a resource to the tower custodial staff for identifying supplies and methods. And the county must move forward with the quarantine of rooms, and if the testing data warrants, entire buildings.

A voluntary shelter in place works when those being asked to shelter are willing participants. Where, as I have heard, the attitude is that "I'm a teenager, so it doesn't affect me", asking, and even begging that person to shelter in his room for two weeks is a fools errand.

And relying on that places the entire community at risk. If I had been asked to participate in the meetings now taking place to put protocols into place, those are the observations I'd have shared.

They come from what I experienced while being on site, talking with and observing the behavior. It's not "a few" who will destroy the efforts of the many. In fact, there are many in the off-campus student population who are acting like, well, 20-year-old college students. They need more than adult finger-wagging.

Should we pretend to be surprised? All of this was predictable if we were simply going to rely on hope. That hasn't worked at any other college campus. It won't here, either.

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Steve Kozachik represents Ward 6 on the Tucson City Council. Contact him at at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or (520) 791-4601.

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Hub is one of the privately owned student housing towers near the University of Arizona.

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