As Holidays Near, UArizona President Urges Campus to 'Stay Focused' on Public Health

two male students sitting at an outdoor table wearing masks

The university will begin offering more in-person instruction this week.

Chris Richards/University of Arizona

With the holiday season fast approaching, the University of Arizona is entering a "critical period" for COVID-19 mitigation, President Robert C. Robbins said today during his weekly virtual briefing on the campus reentry progress.

"From now until Nov. 26, when we expect that many students will leave the Tucson area for the semester break, we need to stay focused, we need to stay vigilant, we need to pay meticulous attention to details," he said.

The university remains in stage two of its reentry plan this week, with classes of up to 50 students given the option to meet on campus, beginning today.

The majority of classes have been held in an online format for most of the semester, with the exception of "essential courses" such as labs and performing arts classes. For the past two weeks, classes of 30 or fewer have been permitted to meet in person. Beginning today, in-person instruction will be an option for courses of 50 or fewer that were, at the time of registration, designated as being in-person or flex in-person – a mix of in-person and online.

Robbins hopes to remain in the current phase until Thanksgiving.

The decision to increase in-person instruction was made in light of improving COVID-19 metrics on and around campus.

On Oct. 23, the university administered 1,016 COVID-19 tests, with two positive results. Of the total tests administered, 46 were administered to symptomatic patients at Campus Health, with no positives. The remaining tests – antigen tests administered through the university's Test All, Test Smart program – included 251 dorm residents with zero positives, 515 off-campus students with one positive, and 204 employees with one positive.

Since Aug. 4, the university has administered 56,368 tests, with a 4.3% positivity rate.

"We're continue to test as many people as we possibly can," Robbins said. Testing numbers are regularly updated on the university's COVID-19 dashboard.

Robbins also noted that the Rt number – which refers to the average number of people who become infected by a single person with the virus – remains relatively low in the university's 85719 ZIP code. While the number increased from 0.35 on Oct. 15 to 0.68 today, it remains below one, as desired. The Rt number for Pima County a whole is 0.99.

Robbins addressed concerns that the university's decision to move into stage two of its reopening plan was not made based on publicly available data.

"We talk to (Pima County Public Health Director) Dr. Cullen every day, multiple times a day. We talk to our PHAT (Public Health Advisory Team) colleagues," he said.

"We've kept transmissibility down low," he added. "There has never been any data on any campuses that we know of … that the transmissibility occurs in the classroom. There is a big, positive effect of being able to socialize (and) come together, even if it's under strict, very physically distanced circumstances."

Pima County Public Health Director Dr. Theresa Cullen, who joined Robbins and Reentry Task Force Director Dr. Richard Carmona at the briefing, emphasized that the county and university have been working together closely on data interpretation and decision making.

"We do work, from a Pima County Health Department perspective, very closely with the university; we sit on multiple committees," she said. "Our belief, and it's reflected in decisions, is that our voice is heard." 

Testing Blitz Before Thanksgiving

The university has plans in place to help reduce travel-related spread of COVID-19 around the holidays.

Prior to Thanksgiving, main campus students will be required to fill out a travel survey detailing their travel plans for the break.

After completing the travel survey, students will be directed to register for an antigen test prior to traveling, as part of a testing blitz. Testing will be available by appointment only, and registration will begin on Nov. 6.

Students who are traveling out of the Tucson area for the break have been encouraged not to return to campus and to finish the semester remotely.

Robbins also urged students to follow public health guidance – including frequent handwashing and physical distancing – when celebrating Halloween this Saturday. He reminded those who plan to wear a mask as part of their costume that character masks are not the same as face masks worn to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Cullen echoed the president's words of caution for Halloween.

"We really encourage you to make sure either you abide by the recommendation, which is that you really limit your activities, and/or if you decide to do something, you do it in the safest way possible," she said.


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