September 14, 2020 / Modified sep 14, 2020 5:47 p.m.

UA, Pima County asks off-campus students to shelter in place

The voluntary request is intended to stem a surge of new coronavirus cases.

Students masked 360 University of Arizona students wearing masks on campus.
AZPM

The University of Arizona and the Pima County Health Department are asking students who live in Greek houses and high-rise apartments around the campus to shelter in place for 14 days.

“Obviously, we don’t want to impede their going to classes that are essential and meeting in person or get medical care or get food,” said Dr. Theresa Cullen, head of the Pima County Health Department.

Last week, the university reported nearly 600 new cases of COVID-19 on campus. More than double the number of total cases on campus are from students who live off campus. Of particular concern, according to Cullen, are Greek Houses and the high-rise apartments that border the campus.

The positivity rate on campus at the end of last week was 8.8% with most of the cases coming from students who live off campus.

“We know that most of it is happening because of selfish behavior of a few individuals who are gathering in large gatherings. We know that is where most of the transmissions happen,” said UA President Robert Robbins.

Robbins said during the summer and early August there were thousands of people on campus doing research and getting the campus ready for the return of students. He said during that time there were fewer than 100 cases.

“In the last ten days we’ve had 847 cases, so what changed? Students came back and they started partying. I would suggest if they stayed in their place, they went to class and they studied, they went and got the basic necessities then we would see the rate we had back in the summer,” said Robbins.

The shelter in place request is just that — a request. But county officials said that change to mandatory quarantines if the numbers don’t begin to improve.

The university does not have the legal ability to require privately-run dorms or Greek houses to comply with the request or mandatory COVID-19 testing, but county officials said they do. Officials with the university, the City of Tucson, and Pima County meet each day to discuss the situation and ways to slow the spike in campus related to COVID-19 cases.

The university can refer students to the dean of students, however, for violating rules about keeping gatherings to ten people or fewer.

“We’re really serious now, this is it, this is your last warning, heed the warnings,” Robbins admonished students in a press briefing Monday.

He said some students have already been suspended or expelled, though he would not give exact numbers.

The university is also stepping up its wastewater testing program to include Greek houses and more on-campus buildings. Robbins also announced the university now has the ability to process 8,000 antigen tests a week.

The university is operating two dorms as quarantine facilities. More than 40% of the 417 isolation beds were in use as of the end of last week — with the number nearly doubling between Tuesday and Friday.

“We recognize that we still have capacity, but just like our colleagues in the community in health care, we get to a point where we have beds but we don’t have the staff to provide the care, the oversight, the observation, the vital sign checking once we get up to those very high numbers,” said Dr. Richard Carmona, head of the University of Arizona reentry task force.

University officials hinted that if the numbers continue to grow at the rate they are now, they may shift to all online classes before the end of the semester. Currently, only essential classes like labs are allowed to meet in person. All other classes will continue being taught remotely through at least the end of next week. The move to resume more in-person instruction has been pushed back every week since the start of the semester in August.

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