UArizona Urges Vaccinations, Masks as School Starts and Hospitals Feel Pressure

masked people moving furniture into a dorm

Maddie Flynn, a second-year student from Phoenix, unloads a shelving unit for her dorm room in Maricopa Hall on Aug. 18, 2021.

Chris Richards/University of Arizona

On the first day of the fall semester, University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins again urged members of the campus community to mask up and get vaccinated, especially as local hospitals have begun to feel the strain of an increasing number of patients visiting the emergency room for reasons other than COVID-19.

"The Pima County Health Department recently released a new advisory that cautions that area hospitals are experiencing (more) people presenting to the emergency room who are sick for reasons other than COVID-19 and who require hospital admission," Robbins said during a virtual briefing on Monday. "This is putting significant pressure on critical health care resources and hospital capacity, which is why we must do everything we can to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect our community. This includes basic public health measures like getting vaccinated, wearing a mask and testing regularly."

The university is requiring face masks for all people in indoor spaces where maintaining adequate and continuous distance is not possible. This measure is consistent with Gov. Doug Ducey's executive order that prohibits public universities from mandating masks or COVID-19 testing based on a person's vaccination status or willingness to disclose their vaccination status, Robbins noted.

"I want to be clear that we have been working closely with the Arizona Board of Regents, and this joint mitigation step is centered on campus safety. The steps we have taken are consistent with the law," Robbins said.

Signs will indicate where on campus masks are required. Students who fail to comply may be referred to the Dean of Students Office.

While the university is not requiring COVID-19 testing, testing remains readily available for students and employees, and Robbins encouraged members of the campus community to get tested at least weekly, regardless of whether or not they are vaccinated, as the highly contagious delta variant continues to cause concern.

The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, which received full approval from the Food and Drug Administration on Monday, is available by appointment for UArizona students and employees at Campus Health. To date, 48% of students enrolled on main campus have voluntarily uploaded proof of vaccination via a secure Campus Health website. The actual number of students vaccinated is likely much higher, Robbins said, given the results of a survey done in February in which 83% of student respondents said they would get the vaccine as soon as it was available to them. In a second survey, conducted in April, 82% of student respondents said they'd already received at least one dose of the vaccine.  

The university is offering incentives – such as scholarships for students and parking permits for employees – to those who upload proof of vaccination.

Robbins said the university is also monitoring Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on booster shots and will work on a plan for boosters following CDC recommendations.

While he remains optimistic about the decision to hold classes in person this fall, Robbins emphasized that it will take everyone's cooperation to make the semester successful.

"If we mask up, get as many people vaccinated as possible, and remain vigilant, we can minimize its (COVID-19's) impact, reduce pressure on our local hospitals and enable the university to remain open," he said.