UA President Robert Robbins warned this week that a return to normal life could be months away—or longer.
“The facts are that until there's a vaccine, we’re never going to be completely risk free,” Robbins said in a teleconference on Wednesday evening. “That’s probably a year at least before we would have a vaccine. We’ve been working for 30 years on an HIV vaccine and still don’t have one because that virus mutates frequently. But this is a coronavirus, there have been lots of studies done on coronavirus. I know that several of our top basic scientists have been working on coronavirus here at the U of A for more than two decades. So we know a lot about coronavirus, but this is a novel virus, so we've got to hope it follows the biology of other viruses.”
If the community spread of COVID-19 is still significant in the fall, international and out-of-state students likely will not return to campus, which could have a significant impact on the university’s tuition revenue.
Robbins said 40 percent of all students are from outside Arizona, and about 15 percent are international students. He said they’re currently modeling what that hit in revenue could look like.
“We just don't know by the fall where people's minds are going to be about coming back to campus or not,” Robbins said. “The financial impact, we’re modeling it, but as you could imagine our net tuition revenue is derived greatly from out-of-state and international students. So we’re going to have significant shortfalls in the projections of what we’re going to have in tuition revenue.”
Rep. Alma Hernandez (Democrat-District 3) asked about the Public Health department at UA. Senior Vice President of Health Services Dr. Michael Dake said about half of the students are in their final year of medical school and qualify for early graduation. The university is in the process of reaching out to those students and asking if they are willing to help out with the local COVID-19 effort.
Lee Lambert, the Chancellor of Pima Community College, warned the COVID-19 outbreak could have a negative effect on their school’s ability to train the next generation of healthcare workers.
“Many of our community colleges who train the nurses, the respiratory therapists and the like, we’ve been sidelined because of the virus so we’re not running the practical side of those training programs,” Lambert said. “How long can we go … before it will start to have a major impact on the system if we can't get these professionals into the talent pipeline and onto the hospitals?”
That concern is shared by officials at UA. Dake said Arizona has shortages in primary care physicians and nurses, and this crisis will put a strain on the effort to train those types of workers. He said they will need to find creative ways to transform these students' educational experience to something that can perhaps be done remotely.
“For the foreseeable future, I share the concern we’re going to be in a remote learning environment,” he said.
Roberts said the UA was successfully migrating to online learning.
“We flipped the switch March 11 and everyone has been working as a great team effort to convert to a fully digital platform,” Robbins said. “Our students, our staff, our faculty have done a tremendous job.”
Since the university ended in-person classes, most students and staff have packed up and left the campus to study and work from home. Robbins said only 500 to 600 students remain in the residential dorms, most of whom are international students.
The university has shifted its research capacities to prioritize COVID-19 over everything else. While preventing the loss of critical research that was being conducted before the COVID-19 outbreak hit the United States, UA has 168 faculty members working to create new research that will help in the fight against the virus.
According to Dr. Betsey Cantwell, Senior Vice President of Research, Innovation and Impact, virologists, pulmonologists and other medical experts are working alongside mental health experts who are analyzing the impacts of social distancing.
They have already generated 15 research proposals submitted to federal agencies for funding. Cantwell said the fact that UA has built up research capabilities over years that can now be used during a pandemic is “remarkable.”
“We stand ready to make that new research become viable as soon as possible,” she said.
UA laboratories have also been focused on producing thousands of COVID-19 test kits. Robbins said almost 100 tests have been performed at Campus Health headquarters, and they hope to be able to do much more in the near future.
“We’ve got 45,000 students and 15,000 employees so we want to be able … to produce 60,000 tests that are available to all of the University of Arizona community,” Robbins said. “We want to test everyone. I think there’s nothing more important we could do … to help us decide about when to bring our students, faculty and staff back to campus.”
While their main focus is testing those within the UA community, Robbins and Dake said they’re taking their stewardship responsibility seriously and hope to scale up their test kit production to provide for the greater Tucson population, if they can secure more funding.
UA has made their test kits available to Banner Health, the Pima County Health Department, local hospitals and the Navajo Nation. They’re working on producing standard personal protective equipment for those working in healthcare.
Dake said they have made 4,000 face shields and 300 intubation hoods, which protect doctors from being exposed to viral particles when intubating a patient, and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has produced over 800 personal use bottles of hand sanitizer through cooperative extensions throughout the state.
Those cooperative extensions are also gearing up to be providers of WiFi service in rural areas that do not have access to the internet. Robbins said the university has also provided laptops to those in need and have personal WiFi hotspots in those computers. However, the set up is not ideal, and he said they’re working with tribal nations to deliver internet connection to Native students, who are most in need of it.
The university is also involved with work on creating antibody blood tests, which can detect who has already fought COVID-19. They can make qualitative tests and quantitative tests; the latter can identify what type of response a person has to the virus, making it about three times more expensive to produce.
Dake said the quantitative test could be more helpful, and their ability to create a large amount of these tests depends on how much funding they can procure. He estimated about $3.3 million for 50,000 tests.