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University of Arizona weighs new restrictions to combat surge in coronavirus cases
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University of Arizona weighs new restrictions to combat surge in coronavirus cases

The University of Arizona’s recent rash of coronavirus cases — including outbreaks at several fraternity and sorority houses — has the administration warning students that more restrictions will be put in place to combat the increase.

The UA reported 709 positive cases since July 31 among 19,794 tests completed. There were 150 cases reported Tuesday. However, there is a lag in data and a rise in cases is expected once the data is gathered by next week.

UA leaders previously mentioned Sept. 28 as a time to reevaluate opening for more in-person instruction, but the latest reports may push the university timeline back. About 5,000 students are attending in-person classes, with the rest doing distance learning.

“Now, things are not looking that good. So, we’re saying we’re going to stop and look at this very carefully. We may even have to back up a little bit based on these numbers,” said Dr. Richard Carmona, the UA’s reentry task-force leader.

The university is pointing to four Greek life houses, three of which have “major issues,” said President Robert Robbins during a news conference Wednesday.

In those three houses, infection numbers are 10 of 21 residents infected; 19 of 30 residents; and 15 of 35 residents confirmed positive. The houses were not identified.

“These numbers just show to me that we’re not doing a good job of controlling the transmission of the virus,” Robbins said.

Upon finding a house with positive rates at or higher than 10%, the Pima County Health Department and the UA’s public-health personnel team are contacting residents to remind them of proper health practices, including housekeeping measures.

“Then we, in essence, without invoking the word ‘quarantine’ but we’re quarantining the house, we’re asking people in the house ... what’s an appropriate way for them to isolate, and then we ask the other people with the assumption, they’re now contacts, and we invoke quarantine for contacts,” said Dr. Theresa Cullen, director of the Pima County Health Department.

Quarantined students are then tested on the fifth or sixth day during their 14-day isolation.

“These rates are actually alarming to us and they’re alarming to the county, not only because of the concern of transmission, but also this potential to have very severe negative consequences on students’ health,” Cullen said about the long-term effects being unknown in young adults.

“There’s a significant number, up to 30%, of people who may have some cardiac inflammation that’s found later. We don’t know what that means. What it points out is how serious this is that even if you are feeling well. The fact that you can transmit to another is critical, but in addition, the long-term consequences for you are unknown.”

There are 91 students — 90 from dorms and one who lives off campus — in isolation beds on campus out of a total of 418 spaces available. The administration is unaware of any hospitalizations of students, faculty or staff for COVID-19.

The recent spike in cases has the administration examining further mitigation efforts, including the possibility of restricting access or even isolating campus dorms for a period of time.

“Recently, we had discussions with the president (Robbins) about restricting visitors to the dorms. Let’s just keep all the kids in the dorm in the dorm period,” Carmona said. “We’re almost there now that then you have to take the next step and say, ‘OK, everybody’s going to stay in this building for the next couple of weeks to do distance education. We’ll bring your food and so on and so forth.’”

None of the dorms — largely due to wastewater testing for the presence of the virus — has reached the level of 10% positivity rate.

The UA is looking to increase testing of each dorm to three times per week to limit case spread.

The UA is continuing its partnerships with the Tucson Police Department and neighborhood groups to take efforts to curb off-campus outbreaks before they spread.

“I think for the most cases that I’ve heard about contact tracing, individuals have reported they’d been to a large gathering, i.e. a party,” Robbins said.

“That’s why we have been so focused on trying to break these parties up, do things that would limit the capability of having these large gatherings.”

So far, 13 homes were visited in nine neighborhoods to address concerns, according to Robbins.

However, Robbins said he was unaware of any punishment given to students by the dean of students.

Robbins added that, “We’ve done a lot of asking, begging, ‘will you please just follow the rules.’

“But now I think we’re getting to the point where we need to start having some more consequences for behavior.”

In those off-campus housing and Greek life houses there will be increased testing, according to Cullen.

“What you’ll see in the next two weeks is very, very aggressive testing in multiple locations throughout the city, that will ensure that we have a pandemic approach and coverage to create what we call a COVID-resilient community,” Cullen said.

“This is a critical time for the community, a critical time for the city and the university for us to remember that we are a collective.”


Fans leave flowers, notes and sports memorabilia below the statue of former University of Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson on the north side of the McKale Memorial Center. The longtime coach, who was known for putting the Wildcats into the national spotlight, died Thursday, Aug. 27. (Josh Galemore / Arizona Daily Star)

Contact Star reporter Shaq Davis at 573-4218 or sdavis@tucson.com

On Twitter: @ShaqDavis1


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