In its final week of in-person instruction for the fall semester, the University of Arizona is reporting slightly elevated COVID-19 case numbers as it finishes its pre-fall break testing blitz this week, UA President Robert C. Robbins shared in a news conference Monday, Nov. 23.
From Nov. 12 through Nov. 21, UA found 126 positive coronavirus cases after administering 11,504 tests for a positivity rate of 1.1%, an increase from the 0.9% positivity rate the university reported the previous 10-day period.
On Nov. 9, the university began its "testing blitz" to reduce the spread of COVID-19 as travel is likely to increase over the holiday season. Testing will end on Nov. 25, and students have been asked to register for an appointment-only test after completing a survey with their traveling plans.
If students travel outside the Tucson area over fall break, the university is asking them to complete the semester outside the area or remotely online. Those who don't travel can complete the semester from their student residences.
“Case numbers are rising here in Arizona and nationwide. I strongly encourage everyone to exercise extreme caution over this break. This means don’t travel. If you don’t have to, don’t do it.” Robbins said. “If you do travel, including going home from your student residence, quarantine after arrival.”
All students will complete the semester remotely when classes resume Nov. 30. In January, the university plans to return to stage two of its reentry plan with up to 50 students attending classes in person.
However, Robbins said if the current surge in COVID-19 cases continues over winter break, “we’re gonna have to go back and start all over like we did with this term.”
Pima County Public Health Director Theresa Cullen lauded the university for its coronavirus mitigation efforts but says the county is seeing alarming levels of cases.
According to Cullen, the seven-day rolling average for COVID-19 cases per day is at 439 throughout Pima County. In mid-October, the county saw 59 cases a day.
On Nov. 22, the county reported 878 new coronavirus cases, which Cullen says is the highest daily case count ever reported in Pima County.
“We are in a post accelerated stage of the pandemic right now. So while the university continues to do incredibly well and is an exemplar for us of what we could be doing, we are not seeing that in the general community,” Cullen said.
Reentry Task Force Director Richard Carmona went over statewide COVID-19 data that shows a 14-day increase in cases of 105% and a 66% increase in hospitalizations throughout Arizona.
Deaths decreased by 11%, but Carmona believes this metric won’t continue to trend downward.
“Unfortunately, I think we’re gonna see that start to change a little bit as we’re into colder weather, people aggregating inside more than outside and more and more of our snowbirds, which are older people who generally have higher comorbidities, coming into the community,” Carmona said. “We have grave concern about that.”
Pima County's R0, pronounced "R naught"—which indicates how contagious a virus is by showing the average number of people who will contract the virus from an infected person—was at 1.38 as of Monday, Nov. 23. The transmissibility rate for the zip code surrounding the university has decreased from 1.33 last week to 1.27 this week, according to Carmona.
UA's CART team, a collaboration with the UA and Tucson police departments that looks for noncompliance to COVID-19 precautions, responded to six incidents of large gatherings last week. The week prior, they reported 14 incidents.
“For those who are breaching our protocols, they are placing all of us at risk,” Carmona said.
With recent news on potentially effective coronavirus vaccines on the horizon, Robbins says the university is preparing but that mitigation tactics among the public are necessary to control the spread of the virus, emphasizing the arrival date of a vaccine is uncertain and it is not a “panacea.”
Cullen says the county has been working closely with the university and hospitals to implement “freezer farms” to store the vaccines at low temperatures.
“While we are very hopeful, we know there will be limited supply, there will be infrastructure difficulties...we do have a concern about vaccine hesitancy, people for lots of different reasons choosing to not get a vaccine,” Cullen said. “Because of our limited supply, we will be prioritizing.”
Ideally, Cullen says the vaccine might be available to the general public in the summer, “for some of us, not for all of us.”
“The system is in place now, I think what we have to do is encourage everyone when given the opportunity to get the vaccine,” Carmona said. “Stay masked, stay socially distant and wash your hands all the time, even if you do get vaccinated.”