University Testing Blitz Completes More Than 14,000 COVID-19 Tests Ahead of Thanksgiving Holiday

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 has completed more than 14,000 COVID-19 tests as part of its pre-holiday testing blitz as students head home for the holidays to finish out the fall semester with online instruction.

The university's testing blitz began on Nov. 9, with the goal of testing as many students as possible before they left for the Thanksgiving holiday to mitigate the travel-related spread of the virus. The blitz will end on Wednesday, but testing will remain available to the university community through the holidays, including mandatory testing for dorm residents.

Last week, the university administered a total of 6,869 tests from Monday, Nov. 16, to Friday, Nov. 20, with 91 positives, university President Robert C. Robbins said today during his weekly virtual briefing on the campus reentry progress.

Of the tests administered this past week, 4,048 were for off-campus students, with 1,537 for on-campus students and 1,284 for employees. Testing numbers are updated regularly on the university's COVID-19 dashboard.

The university is now in stage two of its reentry plan, meaning classes of up to 50 students may meet in person. But after the Thanksgiving holiday, students are encouraged to not return to campus, and they will finish the semester with online courses.

Robbins urged students traveling home for Thanksgiving to quarantine after arriving, wear a mask, stay socially distanced and continuously wash their hands. Students can find more information on holiday travel on the UArizona's COVID-19 website.

The university plans to start the spring semester in stage two if public health conditions allow. COVID-19 testing will be mandatory for all students who plan to live on campus and for those who plan to attend in-person classes in the spring. But Robbins said case numbers trending upward could force a change of plans.

"If things continue to go and we can't get the curve going downward and flattened out, then I think probably we're going to have to go back and start all over like we did with this term," Robbins said.

"The number of cases is going up very quickly, but if you put the proper public health hygiene into place and people follow the rules, it can go down quickly, as well," he added.

Cases Rise in Pima County

The rate of transmission for the 85719 ZIP code, which includes the university's main campus, has slightly declined. Last week, the R naught, or Rt number – which refers to the average number of people who become infected by a single person with the virus – was 1.33. The number is now 1.273.

But the number is expected to rise as additional data comes in, and there are concerns that cases could increase on campus, said Dr. Richard Carmona, 17th U.S. surgeon general and director of the campus reentry task force.

Experts are especially concerned, Carmona added, given that Thanksgiving hasn't even arrived yet.

"We're not at Thanksgiving yet, and we're already up-ticking," Carmona said. "And then after that, we have a Christmas holiday, and then after that, we have New Year's."

One encouraging metric, he added, was the drop in incidents of large gatherings reported by the university's Campus Area Response Team, a partnership between the university and Tucson Police Department. The team reported six gatherings the week of Nov. 16, including one with between 50 and 99 attendees. That number is down from 14 total gatherings the week of Nov. 9.

Dr. Theresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department, who also spoke at today's briefing, said Pima County's daily rolling average of COVID-19 cases had reached a "sobering" 439. That number is up sharply from mid-October, Cullen added, when the county's daily rolling average was just 59 cases, which was still too high, but manageable for public health workers.

The university has set a good example in responding to the virus, Cullen added, pointing to the voluntary shelter-in-place that the university and county officials urged students to follow in mid-September.

But she urged the wider community to also do its part to mitigate the spread.

"While the university continues to 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, emphasizing that a spike in cases was stopped earlier this fall.

"What that means is we can mitigate this again."


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