Monday, August 9, 2021
as they prepare to welcome students in two weeks to all in-person campus courses.
“We recognize the challenges presented to all of us by the Delta variant, which is more contagious than the lineages of SARS-CoV-2 to that we dealt with last academic year, and which is now the dominant strain in the United States,” said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins at the press briefing Monday morning. “This is a very critical moment. I know many of us relaxed over the summer, and we began to think that the pandemic was well behind us.”
At the end of the last school year, the University of Arizona held in-person commencement ceremonies and closed out the year with in-person courses. Over the past year, the university had required masks and implemented mandatory testing, but this year the university faces a rise in cases and an inability to implement key mitigation strategies.
Like K-12 schools, state law bars universities and community colleges from requiring that “a student obtain a COVID-19 vaccine or place any conditions on attendance or participation in classes including mandatory testing or face covering usage.”
Robbins said the university has decided to not challenge state law and will wait to see how the situation “plays out” for some K-12 schools, some of which have instituted mask mandates in Arizona.
When asked if the university considered implementing masks mandates or requiring vaccination before Sept. 29, when some argue the law comes into effect 90 days after the legislative session adjourns, former surgeon general and distinguished professor of Public Health Dr. Richard Carmona said the law was formerly an Executive Order, mandated by Gov. Doug Ducey.
“It is a law or an Executive Order, prior to the law, which mandates what we can and can't do, and we're working tirelessly to try and maximize our ability to keep the university safe, and open it as much as possible,” said Carmona.
In talks with the state and county, Carmona said the university has made suggestions, looking at certain indicices of transmission that would give them “a little more latitude to be able to incorporate a lot of the public health things [they] think are necessary.”
One of those indices is defining an outbreak, said Robbins, as the law states “a public university may require testing only if a significant COVID-19 outbreak occurs in a shared student housing setting that poses a risk to the students or staff.” However it states the university must receive approval from the Arizona Department of Health Services before implementing the testing requirement.
Although they cannot require them, the university is “strongly encouraging” mask use in indoor spaces.
“It is my expectation that we will all respect each other and wear a mask in these areas to promote in-person learning in the most effective health and safety protocols,” said Robbins.
The university will require masking in health care facilities, labs, and other areas, as allowed by state law.
In order to prepare for students in classrooms, the university will supply masks to every classroom and cleaning supplies. They also installed 8,000 MERV-13 filters in classrooms and other office spaces throughout the campus to capture airborne particles of the size that usually transport the COVID virus.
Robbins emphasized the university will continue to conduct surveillance testing and wastewater testing, but testing will be voluntary.
“I can't mandate it at this point. Certainly anything, any question or any treatment of people based on vaccination status is prohibited, but I would like to see us have voluntary, altruistic behavior of getting tested at least once a week, even if you're vaccinated,” said Robbins.
The university will continue to offer COVID-19 tests to the campus community, and tests are available in the Catalina Room at the Student Union. On Aug. 16, the site will transition to provide rapid antigen testing. The testing location is for asymptomatic individuals and an appointment is required. Symptomatic individuals can make an appointment with Campus Health for a test.
Students who test positive will be required to isolate. As they did last year, the university will provide rooms in separate dorms and students have the option to isolate off campus. According to Vice President of Communications Holly Jensen, the university has 150 beds available in one of their dorms and they will also be working with community partners if additional beds are needed.
While Robbins believes they can return to campus in-person, they will continue to monitor cases on a daily basis and make adjustments as needed, whether that means considering returning to hybrid or full remote learning.
“I do anticipate we're going to have cases, there's no question about it,” said Robbins. “If we need to make adjustments, we will.”
Last year, the university had offered students the ability to upload their vaccination status in order to be exempt from weekly mandatory testing. The university cannot require vaccination, but from voluntary reporting, Robbins estimates about half of students are vaccinated. He estimates the university would need to reach about 85% vaccination in order to achieve herd immunity.
“I thought that at commencement, we would be in a different place. We're not,” said Robbins. “We just are not, so it's gonna require intense work by all of us.”
Robbins said he expects everyone on campus to get vaccinated, as the vaccine lowered the risk of contracting the virus and the risk of severe disease or death. Campus Health offers the Pfizer vaccine for students and staff.
“Those choices, think about them carefully, because they not only affect you, but they affect everyone around you, even people you don't know,” said Robbins