University, County Work Together at 'Critical Time' for COVID-19 Mitigation

students getting tested for COVID-19

A student arrives for a COVID-19 test at the beginning of the fall semester.

Chris Richards/University Communications

The University of Arizona continues to work in partnership with the county and city to slow the spread of COVID-19, President Robert C. Robbins said today in a briefing on the university's reentry progress.

Theresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department, joined the virtual briefing with Robbins and Campus Reentry Task Force Director Dr. Richard Carmona, 17th U.S. surgeon general and a distinguished professor in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health.

Cullen said the county is working closely with the university, city and local businesses, schools and industries on a "layered approach" to managing the virus.

That approach includes partnering with the university on testing, contact tracing, data sharing and education and mitigation efforts.

"The Pima County Health Department is committed to ensuring the safety and wellness of all members of our county," Cullen said. "Obviously, the university is a major partner for us and we work very closely with them. But it's important to recall that as we approach our relationship with the university we are doing that in a way that we ensure protection of our vulnerable populations – the other members of our community – and we align ourselves with the best and the brightest at the university, at the city and with other industries throughout the county."

Cullen said she expects to see an increase in COVID-19 cases, but the goal is to put appropriate mitigations in place, even as people grow weary of the virus.

"This is a critical time for the community, a critical time for the city and the university, for us to remember that we are collective; we are a community-based response to a pandemic," she said. 

Robbins highlighted several university COVID-19 mitigation efforts currently underway with community partners:

  • The university is collaborating with city officials to respond to reports of off-campus gatherings that violate city ordinances and undermine health and safety guidelines.
  • The university's Community Relations team is working with neighborhood associations, Tucson Ward Offices 3 and 6, Pima County District 5 and the Tucson Police Department's Red Tag unit to respond to complaints about off-campus student houses not following basic public health guidelines. The team has visited 13 homes in nine different neighborhoods, sharing details about campus and city mask requirements, as well as information about testing and what students should do if they feel ill.
  • The university is working with off-campus housing to provide resources for students and housing managers, including signage on the importance of face coverings, hand-washing and other public health practices. The university also provided a seminar for off-campus building managers and sorority and fraternity houses on isolation, cleaning practices and other COVID-19 mitigation and response measures.

Robbins said there is no apparent virus transmission from the university to the broader community, and he's unaware of any student, faculty or staff hospitalizations for the virus. Pima County case data as of Aug. 30 showed a slight increase in the 0-19 and 20-29 age groups, but declines among other age groups, he said.  

"We will have cases as the pandemic continues – we've known that all along – likely until a vaccine is widely available," Robbins said.

Test, Trace, Trace Working as it Should

Robbins noted that the university recently identified 15 false positive COVID-19 tests, which included 11 student-athletes.

When contact tracing efforts did not support some positive test results, it prompted the university to rerun 25 positive tests. Of those, only 10 remained positive.

Students and faculty members in the College of Public Health work with the Pima County Health Department as contact tracers for the campus community. The fact that the testing error was caught in the contact tracing stage shows the university's Test, Trace, Treat strategy is working, Robbins said.

"This is a sign that the Test, Trace, Treat ecosystem we've established is capable of self-correction," Robbins said.

Antigen and polymerase chain reaction testing continues to be available for students living on and off campus, as well as employees. Antigen and PCR tests are both nasal swab tests used to detect an active COVID-19 infection.

Students who live on campus and test positive for COVID-19 are moved into an isolation dorm, and isolation beds also are available for off-campus students who need them, Robbins said. There are currently 90 on-campus students and one off-campus student in an isolation dorm, he said.

The university also continues its wastewater testing program, which can detect the presence of a virus in specific communities. Under the direction of Ian Pepper, director of the UArizona Water and Energy Sustainable Technology Center and a BIO5 Institute member, dorms' wastewater is being tested three times a week, Robbins said. When that testing returns a positive result for a given dorm, that dorm's residents can then undergo individual testing.

Robbins urged the campus community to continue complying with public health protocols and he also stressed importance of getting a flu shot as the regular flu season approaches amid the pandemic.

"We need to do everything we can to minimize the spread of this very, highly contagious and transmittable virus that can be deadly, especially to the most vulnerable population," he said.


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