The following is the opinion and analysis of the writers:
Midsummer in Tucson is typically a time of hope, anticipation and renewal. The imminent arrival of students from far and wide to begin or continue their academic journey on campus. This year, sadly, the moment feels different. We face a rapidly evolving, urgent situation that will adversely impact the university and the larger Tucson community unless action is taken.
So what is the issue? As things stand, the UA has been deprived of the ability to use proven tools, methods and measures — specifically viral testing, masking and vaccination — to limit the spread, impact and danger of the coronavirus just when they are needed most as students, faculty and staff return to campus, and to the Tucson community.
How did this happen? The answer is simple: recent legislative and governmental measures tie the hands of the UA, mandating what it can and cannot do to enhance and insure individual and community safety. We write with a sense of urgency because we are in the midst of a surge of an even more infectious, communicable and potentially lethal coronavirus mutant — the delta variant!
The University of Arizona has been a leader among academic institutions in its approach to the COVID pandemic. When COVID first hit, multiple transdisciplinary groups within the university responded to the emerging risk.
The University of Arizona was recognized nationally for being at the forefront, for rapidly developing its own highly sensitive and effective diagnostic test for SARS-Co-V-2, the infectious coronavirus of the COVID pandemic.
It developed methods to scale-up testing and employed these for screening on campus, while extending these tools statewide for broader use. The university evolved an overall approach of “test, trace and treat,” which was highly effective in limiting the spread of coronavirus at U of A, and for that matter throughout Tucson and Southern Arizona.
It implemented water and sewage testing to identify buildings and zones of potential infectivity and was further able to curb spread quickly. All this depended on a culture led by science and evidence, which amplified the UA motto, becoming “Mask Up and Bear Down.”
Working closely with public-health officials in and around the state, we kept the lid on infection, continued our education, research and service mission to the state, and ended the semester safely.
But in a flash, the COVID situation has changed. The coronavirus has outpaced us through rapid mutation. We now face a more infectious, more communicable threat — the delta variant, with lambda not far behind.
Some basic viral biology — viruses need a host, and yes that’s you, and indeed all of us. To stop spread we either kill the virus or limit susceptibility of the host. There are currently no effective antiviral agents for SARS Co-V-2, so the kill strategy is out.
We are therefore left with limiting the host. That is why there has been such an emphasis on vaccinating one and all, to drastically limit available hosts, reduce viral spread and reduce the chance of further viral mutation.
And that is why the university urgently needs every available tool, including masking and ready testing, to keep students, staff, faculty and Tucson and Arizona citizens safe. And if that were not enough, there is new evidence driving this urgency.
It has now been determined that even with vaccination there are breakthrough infections, and the existence of asymptomatic viral carriers able to shed virus.
In the most recent issue of the CDC publication MMWR (July 30, 2021) 469 cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed from individuals at a large public gathering, 74% of whom were previously vaccinated, with 21% of these being viral positive on testing yet asymptomatic — hence the importance of the asymptomatic shedder despite vaccination. This is even more reason why we need to resume testing, tracing and treating and masking to keep the university and the community safe from a more lethal viral menace.
So what’s the punchline? Over the past 16 months we have firmly demonstrated that the tools of testing and masking have kept the university and the larger Tucson community safe and effective.
They have allowed the UA to operate as a locus of education, research and service without the whole place becoming infected or the town succumbing. They have allowed us to remain open and to do our jobs. But, counter to the best evidence-based information, the use of these tools is currently restricted by governmental action.
We call on the community to recognize this situation and join our voice so as to affect change. We call on government officials to reexamine and remove these restrictions in this time of a vastly different and much riskier biological environment.
The UA, faculty and administration as a whole need the discretionary ability to employ proven tools and measures, to decide the best mode to safely operate this vital institution, which is so integral to the community.
The University of Arizona has always led with science. As such, it, along with the larger Southern Arizona community, has been a beacon of innovation in many disciplines.
While legislation and directives may be well-meaning, in this evolving biological environment there is need to rapidly adapt policy to an ever changing, ever more risky situation.
As a leading academic institution connected to a vital, multicultural and vibrant Tucson community, we must let science, evidence and medical and biological expertise lead, guide and course correct.
We have come too far, and sacrificed so much, to lose the COVID race at the starting bell of the new semester because we are being forced to run this race with our hands tied behind our backs.
Dr. Marvin J. Slepian is a UA regents’ professor. Other UA regents’ and distinguished professors signing this guest opinion are: Peter A. Strittmatter, PhD; Nicholas Strausfeld, PhD; Mark Nichter, PhD; Mary C. Stiner, PhD; Rebecca Tsosie, PhD; Thomas G. Bever, PhD; Joellen Russell Ph.D. and Lynn Nadel, PhD.