The University of Arizona will offer larger in-person classes on Monday, but with “COVID exhaustion” and multiple variants of COVID-19 on campus, President Robert C. Robbins urged continued compliance to mitigation strategies.
University coronavirus policies will not change despite Gov. Doug Ducey’s lifting of COVID-19 related restrictions last week.
“We are in the fourth quarter of this term, and we need to keep doing what we've been doing that's been so successful and gotten us to this point,” said Robbins in the press briefing Monday morning. “The recent executive order from Governor Ducey, regarding COVID-19 restrictions, does not affect university policies, nor does it bar enforcement of these policies.”
He said university face-covering and all other mitigation strategies will remain in place.
The university moves to Stage 3 on Monday, where in-person and flex in-person courses of up to 100 students may offer in-person instruction.
Dr. Michael Worobey, head of the university's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, found 12 cases of the UK variant (B.1.1.7) and two cases of the California variant (B.1.429) on campus within the past two weeks as part of the research using COVID-19 genomic sequencing to track COVID-19 variants.
These variants, which are highly transmissible and have higher mortality rates, may be contagious for a longer period of time, said Worobey.
“When we look at the literature, we can see that the time when people are likely infectious is probably carried over a little bit later with this variant,” said Worobey. “So you've just got more virus that you're putting out into the world, but it's also a combination of that high viral load over a longer period of time, and that really indicates that a slightly longer isolation or quarantine time is really a smart move. We're dealing with a different beast here and we need to act accordingly.”
In response to these new variants on campus. Robbins announced the university would extend the quarantine period from 10 to 14 days.
“This is really a wake-up call that we're not done yet,” said Worobey. “We still need to, not just maintain, but to some degree redouble our efforts in terms of mitigation measures, wearing those masks, keeping social distance, and everyone getting, as soon as they can, vaccines through our tremendous POD that we have here on campus.”
As students transition to large in-person classes at the university, UA officials said students and staff are fairly safe within the controlled space of the classroom but they're more concerned about what happens off campus after hours.
“We wanted them not to go down to Fourth Avenue and be hanging out in bars and partying with no face coverings close together. So we've got to just remain vigilant,” said Robbins.
The university also found a drop in student compliance in testing from 87 percent last month down to 75 percent.
From March 22 to March 26, they administered 6,845 tests COVID-19 tests with only 23 positives for 0.3 percent positivity rate. While students on campus and off-campus students have a higher positivity rate of 0.5 and 0.4 percent respectively.
"Please hang in, we're right down on the goal line and getting the ball across into the end," said Robbins, who urged students to keep their weekly appointments and also not to gather in large groups.
Students and staff will receive an exemption to testing if they are fully vaccinated, said Robbins.
The UA POD has administered 102,734 vaccines as of Monday. Following Rutgers University's announcement Thursday that they would mandate students be vaccinated before returning to campus in the fall, Robbins said because the vaccine is under emergency-use authorization, they cannot mandate it, but they are “strongly encouraging” it.
“We're pleading, we're groveling, we're begging please, please do the things we're asking you to do,” said Robbins.
UA Reentry Task Force Director Dr. Richard Carmona said they are keeping an eye on these issues with their legal team, but there would still be challenges to mandate vaccination as a condition of being a student.
The UA POD along with the state moved to open eligibility for those 16 and older. Go to podvaccine.azdhs.gov/ or call 602-542-1000 for an appointment.