As Holidays Near, UArizona President Urges Campus to ‘Stay Focused’ on Public Health

Oct 26, 2020

TUCSON, Ariz. — With the holiday season fast approaching, the University of Arizona is entering a “critical period” for COVID-19 mitigation, President Robert C. Robbins, MD, said today during his weekly virtual briefing on the campus reentry progress.

“From now until Nov. 26, when we expect that many students will leave the Tucson area for the semester break, we need to stay focused, we need to stay vigilant, we need to pay meticulous attention to details,” he said.

The university remains in stage two of its reentry plan this week, with classes of up to 50 students given the option to meet on campus, beginning today.

The majority of classes have been held in an online format for most of the semester, with the exception of “essential courses” such as labs and performing arts classes. For the past two weeks, classes of 30 or fewer have been permitted to meet in person. Beginning today, in-person instruction will be an option for courses of 50 or fewer that were, at the time of registration, designated as being in-person or flex in-person – a mix of in-person and online.

Dr. Robbins hopes to remain in the current phase until Thanksgiving.

The decision to increase in-person instruction was made in light of improving COVID-19 metrics on and around campus.

On Oct. 23, the university administered 1,016 COVID-19 tests, with two positive results. Of the total tests administered, 46 were administered to symptomatic patients at Campus Health, with no positives. The remaining tests – antigen tests administered through the university’s Test All, Test Smart program – included 251 dorm residents with zero positives, 515 off-campus students with one positive, and 204 employees with one positive.

Since Aug. 4, the university has administered 56,368 tests, with a 4.3% positivity rate.

“We’re continue to test as many people as we possibly can,” Dr. Robbins said. Testing numbers are regularly updated on the university’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Dr. Robbins also noted that the Rt number – which refers to the average number of people who become infected by a single person with the virus – remains relatively low in the university’s 85719 ZIP code. While the number increased from 0.35 on Oct. 15 to 0.68 today, it remains below one, as desired. The Rt number for Pima County a whole is 0.99.

Dr. Robbins addressed concerns that the university’s decision to move into stage two of its reopening plan was not made based on publicly available data.

“We talk to (Pima County Public Health Director) Dr. Cullen every day, multiple times a day. We talk to our PHAT (Public Health Advisory Team) colleagues,” he said.

“We’ve kept transmissibility down low,” he added. “There has never been any data on any campuses that we know of … that the transmissibility occurs in the classroom. There is a big, positive effect of being able to socialize (and) come together, even if it’s under strict, very physically distanced circumstances.”

Pima County Public Health Director Theresa Cullen, MD, an associate professor in the UArizona Department of Family and Community Medicine in the College of Medicine – Tucson, who joined Dr. Robbins and Reentry Task Force Director Richard Carmona, MD, MPH, at the briefing, emphasized that the county and university have been working together closely on data interpretation and decision making. The 17th. U.S. surgeon general, Dr. Carmona is a distinguished professor in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.

“We do work, from a Pima County Health Department perspective, very closely with the university; we sit on multiple committees,” Dr. Cullen said. “Our belief, and it’s reflected in decisions, is that our voice is heard.”

Testing Blitz before Thanksgiving

The university has plans in place to help reduce travel-related spread of COVID-19 around the holidays.

Prior to Thanksgiving, main campus students will be required to fill out a travel survey detailing their travel plans for the break.

After completing the travel survey, students will be directed to register for an antigen test prior to traveling, as part of a testing blitz. Testing will be available by appointment only, and registration will begin on Nov. 6.

Students who are traveling out of the Tucson area for the break have been encouraged not to return to campus and to finish the semester remotely.

Dr. Robbins also urged students to follow public health guidance – including frequent handwashing and physical distancing – when celebrating Halloween this Saturday. He reminded those who plan to wear a mask as part of their costume that character masks are not the same as face masks worn to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Cullen echoed the president’s words of caution for Halloween.

“We really encourage you to make sure either you abide by the recommendation, which is that you really limit your activities, and/or if you decide to do something, you do it in the safest way possible,” she said.

Click here to view video from the Oct. 26, 2020, Campus Reentry Briefing on YouTube.

The UArizona Health Sciences COVID-19 Research webpage can be found here.

For the latest on the University of Arizona response to the novel coronavirus, visit the university’s COVID-19 webpage.

For UANews coverage of COVID-19, visit https://news.arizona.edu/news/covid19.

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A version of this article appeared originally on the UANews website.

NOTE TO EDITORS/WRITERS: Digital assets associated with this article available at https://arizona.box.com/v/CampusReentry102620.

About the UArizona Health Sciences
The University of Arizona Health Sciences is the statewide leader in biomedical research and health professions training. UArizona Health Sciences includes the Colleges of Medicine (Tucson and Phoenix), Nursing, Pharmacy, and the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, with main campus locations in Tucson and the Phoenix Biomedical Campus in downtown Phoenix. From these vantage points, Health Sciences reaches across the state of Arizona, the greater Southwest and around the world to provide next-generation education, research and outreach. A major economic engine, Health Sciences employs nearly 5,000 people, has approximately 4,000 students and 900 faculty members, and garners $200 million in research grants and contracts annually. For more information: uahs.arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIn | Instagram).

About the University of Arizona
The University of Arizona, a land-grant university with two independently accredited medical schools, is one of the nation's top public universities, according to U.S. News & World Report. Established in 1885, the university is widely recognized as a student-centric university and has been designated as a Hispanic Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education. The university ranked in the top 20 in 2018 in research expenditures among all public universities, according to the National Science Foundation, and is a leading Research 1 institution with $687 million in annual research expenditures. The university advances the frontiers of interdisciplinary scholarship and entrepreneurial partnerships as a member of the Association of American Universities, the 65 leading public and private research universities in the U.S. It benefits the state with an estimated economic impact of $4.1 billion annually. For more information: arizona.edu (Follow us: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | LinkedIn | Instagram).

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