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Steve Kozachik: UA should not bring students back to campus, it's too risky
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Steve Kozachik: UA should not bring students back to campus, it's too risky

  • Updated

The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

The spring semester at the University of Arizona is scheduled to begin on Jan.13. The UA is inviting thousands of students who have been vacationing out-of-state back into our community. With nearly 40% of undergrads no-resident, and another 4% international students, that inflow of travelers runs counter to public-health advice being given by responsible public-health experts.

The UA should delay in-person coursework until COVID-19 infections have stabilized and vaccines are being widely administered.

We are a week away from seeing the COVID impacts of Christmas travel and family gatherings. At the time students begin arriving back into Tucson, we will then be a week away from seeing the COVID impacts of the New Year’s partying. In the aftermath of Thanksgiving, the entire nation went into the “substantial risk” category as defined by the Harvard Global Health Institute. We should expect nothing less from the end-of-year activities.

Of the nonresident student population attending the UA, 15% come from California and another 7% come from the combination of Illinois, Washington, Texas and Colorado. California is reporting the highest number of new daily coronavirus cases per capita in the country. Their health-care workers are being asked to place their own lives at risk daily as they try to be both medical provider and family to patients in their care.

After the Thanksgiving break, the University of Illinois brought back to campus an estimated 35,000 students. That’s about what the UA is inviting back to campus in January. Despite the widespread testing done at Illinois, its COVID cases spiked as its students left for the Christmas break. As was true at the UA, it was large social gatherings that created the surge in cases.

In Austin, Texas, ICU use increased 62% in the week after Christmas and new hospital admissions went up 106% since the beginning of December. Surges have hit El Paso, Lubbock, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Fort Worth. Austin interim health authority Mark Escott warned that even if hospitals find bed capacity, staffing won’t be available because of significant COVID-19 increases statewide.

In Colorado, county is pitted against county as areas respecting tough COVID protocols push back against adjacent areas that ignore the restrictions. In Boulder County there are outbreaks around the University of Colorado. In nearby Weld County, it’s meatpacking plants with the outbreaks. One Boulder County mayor, Brian Bagley, expressed concern over Weld County residents’ behavior. His City Council considered an ordinance restricting Weld County residents from receiving care at hospitals in their city. Bagley said the Weld County attitude was “our hospitals are full, but don’t worry, we’re just going to use yours.”

The economy will not rebound until the virus is under control. The financial damage cannot drive the public-health policy decisions.

Nonresident tuition should not drive public-health decisions at the UA. UA leadership cannot be blinded to the health impacts bringing thousands of students back into our community will cause. Those impacts are not speculation. We saw it in September after the UA reopened. The infectivity rate surrounding campus was 2.22. Every sick person was infecting more than 2 others. The ZIP code around campus was the countywide hot spot.

UA students can safely study remotely until COVID-19 is more under control and vaccines are more widely distributed. The UA owes that consideration to residents, to health-care workers and to their own students, faculty and staff.

Steve Kozachik represents Ward 6, which includes the University of Arizona and central Tucson, on the Tucson City Council.

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