UArizona President Urges Caution as Omicron Variant Causes New Concern

young woman getting vaccinated

A vaccination is given during the spring 2021 semester.

Chris Richards/University of Arizona

With the omicron variant of COVID-19 named a variant of concern by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26 and hospitalizations continuing to rise nationally and in Arizona, University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins again urged students and employees to get vaccinated, test regularly and follow good public health practices.

"It is still early, and scientists around the world are working to study and better understand this new variant," Robbins said during a virtual briefing on Monday. "As they do this work, we will continue to monitor public health conditions and adapt as needed."

The omicron variant, which originated in South Africa, has not yet been identified in the U.S., but it likely will be in the near future, said 17th U.S. Surgeon General and UArizona Laureate Professor of Public Health Dr. Richard Carmona, who joined Robbins for Monday's briefing.  

To be considered a variant of concern by the WHO, a variant must have at least one of these three qualities:

  • Increase in transmissibility or detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology
  • Increase in virulence or change in clinical disease presentation
  • Decrease in effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, vaccines or therapeutics

"I think it's important to recognize that new information on this variant will emerge rapidly and may, at times, be confusing to those of us who are not directly involved in the research," Robbins said. "I encourage everyone to stay attuned to the guidance of public health officials and continue the public health practices we've been encouraging since this pandemic began: Cover your face in public, keep socially distant, wash your hands and, above all, get vaccinated."

While there is some concern that the current vaccine may not be as effective against the omicron variant, early indications are that it still offers good protection, Carmona said. 

"It's still effective; we're just looking at how effective it is," he said.

Students and employees can make an appointment to be vaccinated at Campus Health. Vaccination is required for all employees unless they have received a religious or disability exemption. More than 80% of employees have already met the requirement, Robbins said.

To comply with guidelines for federal contractors, employees must by Jan. 18 provide proof of vaccination in one of three ways:

  • Upload vaccination documentation through the university's secure, private online system.
  • If vaccinated in Arizona, verify status through the state immunization information system.
  • Verify documents in person in the Tucson Room of the Student Union Memorial Center, Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m.-12 p.m. and 1-3 p.m.

Robbins also urged members of the campus community to get tested regularly, regardless of vaccination status, as the semester nears its end. Dec. 8 is the last day of regular classes, and Dec. 16 is the last day of final exams.

"We need to know the level of COVID-19 in our community, and the only way we can do that is testing," he said. "Testing is vital to make informed and effective decisions, both for the institution and for each of us individually."

The pandemic also has taken a toll on mental health, Robbins said, and news of a new variant and the uncertainty around it may cause additional stress for some.

Dean of Students Kendal Washington White, who joined Robbins and Carmona for Monday's briefing, encouraged students and employees to remember to practice self-care as the semester winds down, including eating healthfully, exercising and getting plenty of sleep. Students who need mental health support can reach out to Counseling & Psych Services, and employees can contact Life & Work Connections.

"It's important for us to take care of ourselves mentally so that we can get through the rest of this semester and be ready for next spring," White said. "We are in the season of gratitude right now and we need to treat each other with compassion (and) make sure that we are hearing each other."