Big Bug on Campus: University officials are requiring masks but health experts say it’s vital for students to get vaccinated

The University of Arizona will require masks in all indoor spaces where it is not possible to maintain social distance, President Robert C. Robbins said last week after ASU and NAU officials made similar announcements.

Robbins said the decision is based on "the current health conditions and aligned with CDC guidance as well as our commitment to deliver in-person learning at the University of Arizona."

Robbins' announcement was an about-face from the position he had announced at a press briefing earlier in the week, when he had said the university would obey state law and not require masks, but would strongly encourage the use of masks when indoors.

"The ideal would be that we could require everyone to be vaccinated, we could require everyone to cover their face, we could require many things that other places are doing but we cannot do here because of state law," said Robbins on Monday, Aug. 9.

According to UA Vice President of Communications Holly Jensen, the university had been working with their university counterparts and the Arizona Board of Regents to reach a consensus on "mitigation efforts that fit within the Governor's executive order and the laws passed by the legislature."

In a statement released on Thursday, ABOR Chair Lydel Manson said the universities were following state law.

"The steps taken by our universities comply with the executive order related to university COVID-19 actions and state law, and the board supports our university presidents for taking measures they believe are necessary to minimize risk of COVID-19 transmission on campus."

Will Humble, executive director for Arizona Public Health Association, believes the universities took a political risk by requiring masks, but are within the law to do so.

"They're right square on, because the law that was in that university budget bill is so badly written that what they've done is find a clever way to accomplish what they want to and not violate the law," said Humble.

The law states: "The Arizona Board of Regents, a public university or a community college may not require that a student obtain a COVID-19 vaccination or show proof of receiving a COVID-19 vaccination or place any conditions on attendance or participation in classes or academic activities, including mandatory testing or face covering usage."

The law reflects the core elements of Gov. Doug Ducey's executive order passed on June 15, in response to Arizona State University's vaccination expectations for the coming school year, which stated unvaccinated individuals or those who did not disclose their vaccination status would be required to participate in daily health checks, participate in up to two weekly COVID-19 tests, and wear masks. The law, like the executive order, focuses on the disparate treatments between vaccinated and unvaccinated students.

However, with rising COVID cases and the prevalence of the Delta variant, the CDC updated their mask guidelines on July 27, recommending individuals mask when indoors, regardless of vaccination.

"Now, universities are like, well now we can follow the CDC guidance, we're not treating vaccinated and unvaccinated students differently and we can still get masking and better protection in the classrooms," said Humble.

Humble had not expected the universities to implement a mask requirement, he "felt like the university presidents would be unwilling to challenge the governor, given what kind of financial implications that could lead to next year."

He believes the support from the Arizona Board of Regents and other state universities was important so Robbins would not be singled out. Pima Community College announced on Thursday they would also require masks in all indoor spaces beginning Monday, Aug. 16.

Despite mask requirements, health experts expect outbreaks to occur on university campuses, but masks in combination with other mitigation strategies will slow the spread of the virus.

"Masking in the class is not going to stop transmission on campus but if you combine masking in class with other behaviors we can slow it," said Dr. Joe Gerald, epidemiologist with the UA Zuckerman School of Public Health. "And recognize there are going to be outbreaks. They're just unavoidable in this particular setting."

Early in fall 2020, Gerald noted the large outbreaks on campus related to social activities, like the Greek system, dormitories and socialization outside of the classroom space.

In Monday's press briefing, Robbins said they had not reimplemented the Campus Area Response Team (CART), a collaboration between the university and the Tucson Police Department established to respond to reports of parties and gatherings that violate city ordinances and undermine health and safety guidelines. He said CART would be another possible measure to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

"As long as the community is going to allow people to go out and go to bars, I think you're gonna see our students doing that," said Robbins.

Under an emergency proclamation passed last March and rescinded in July, the Pima County Board of Supervisors had limited occupancy levels, required masks and other mitigation strategies.

However, a new state law prohibits local jurisdictions from issuing any order "related to mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic that impacts private businesses, schools, churches or other private entities, including an order, rule, ordinance or regulation that mandates the use of face coverings, requires closing a business or imposes a curfew."

In order to prepare for students in classrooms, the university will supply masks to every classroom and cleaning supplies. They also installed 8000 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.

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 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

However, given the current conditions, Gerald recommends "not starting with full operations with no restrictions on classroom size or gatherings in other places."

As of Friday, Arizona has a high rate of transmission of 245 cases per 100,000 individuals over the last seven days. According to Gerald, Arizona is halfway to summer 2020 peak levels, when the county hit a high of over 5,000 cases in a day in June.

"We're starting this fall in a much worse position than last fall because there are higher levels of community transmission and there are fewer state and community policies in place to slow spread," said Gerald. "Bringing students back to class, under normal operations, whether it's university students or K-12, is recklessly throwing fuel on the fire, to make our current situation even worse."

Gerald said there are pretty good odds the university might have to go to some form of hybrid instruction or walk back to a lower stage of operation, with zero being fully online.

"Nothing is gonna be enough to have a normal semester. There's going to be infections that happen," said Humble. "The two things that matter the most are: number one, getting more students vaccinated, and I think that's more important than masks, and number two would be masking indoors."

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 and they plan to stand several mobile units in the coming weeks as students prepare to return to class on Aug. 23, according to Jensen.

"With vaccination on students, it needs to be free, but it also needs to be easy and convenient," said Humble, approving of the university's efforts to vaccinate students.

As of Monday, Robbins said about half of students have been vaccinated, but according to Gerald this would not be enough to reduce the chances of an outbreak.

"If that number is really, really high, above 85%, then we're going to be in a much better position. It's much less likely that we'll have a major outbreak, but if we come back at 50% or 60%, then yes, we could have an outbreak this fall, as large or larger than the one we had last fall," Gerald said.

Gerald notes the individual risk at the university is lower as the majority of students are young and healthy and would experience a relatively mild illness if they became sick.

"From that perspective at the individual level, a large outbreak, if it were just contained within our community of students, might not have dire implications," said Gerald. Since students work in the community as servers in restaurants, health aides in long-term care facilities and childcare settings, Gerald notes a high degree of transmission within our student community can leak over into the community.

"It's important in a situation like this to think not only what risk is posed to the individual, but what larger risk exists to the community for engaging in some type of behavior," said Gerald.

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."