How one top university with no COVID-19 mandates is approaching the fall

President stands by messages that have worked through the pandemic around masking, testing and vaccinations.
By: | July 25, 2022
The University of Arizona launched a statewide coronavirus antibody testing initiative with the state of Arizona this week.Photo courtesy of the University of Arizona

Last week, University of Arizona President Robert Robbins sent a message to his community in advance of the fall semester, specifically addressing expectations around COVID-19. He ended it with these seven words: “Bear Down, Mask Up and Vax Up.”

Coming from a world-renowned former surgeon who dedicated much of his life to medicine and higher education, this guidance offers a profound glimpse at how one institution without a vaccine requirement is addressing the pandemic for the 2022-23 academic year. Hamstrung by Gov. Doug Ducey’s executive order that bans public universities from vaccine and mask requirements, institutions such as Arizona have relied on encouragement in lieu of mandates to keep case counts low.

In the letter, Robbins balances the continued return to in-person classes with the understanding that coronavirus spinoff variants such as BA.5 will be as much a part of campus environments as they have been for the past two years. “While many of us have a strong desire to be past both the threats posed by COVID-19 and the impact it has had on our lives, the pandemic is not over,” Robbins wrote. Indeed, the state of Arizona currently has the fifth-highest positivity rate in the nation (29%), although cases in Pima County have remained relatively level over the past two weeks. But what happens when nearly 50,000 students return to U of A? While stating his Public Health Advisory team’s continued mission to keep campus safe, he also sent a warning to the community.

“As we monitor the virus, as well as the capacity of our public health and medical systems, the continued evolution of the virus remains a point of concern,” Robbins wrote. “Certain new variants have shown increased transmissibility and the ability to evade the immune response. The same mitigation strategies we have relied upon throughout the pandemic appear to remain effective at limiting transmission of the new variants – if we use them. As always, if you are in a high-risk category, I encourage you to take appropriate additional precautions.”

One of those, Robbins said, is wearing face coverings. Another is testing routinely. He also noted the importance of getting vaccinated, a polarizing topic within the state, where 37% of citizens have not received preventive COVID doses. This fall, Arizona is planning to provide vaccine and booster shots to students, staff and faculty, along with masks and testing. But it is not going to offer isolation spaces for those who do test positive. Instead, those residential students who do will be isolating in their own dorms and apartments. Roommates of those who test positive will not be given separate housing to quarantine. Students who test positive and who have roommates are being told to mask in their own areas. They also will not be permitted in classrooms, dining halls or work in any capacity on campus.

The university, which had received more than 38,000 vaccination uploads to its system from students through the middle of January, will be updating its protocols one more time before the fall semester begins. From the beginning of the year through the end of its spring semester, Arizona saw a 4.8% positivity rate on campus, largely driven by higher case counts in January, where it registered more than 200 cases per day across the span of a week.

Many institutions that have sent out communications for the fall are taking a similar approach to Arizona’s, not requiring masks but strongly encouraging them. The Dayton Daily News reports that many institutions in its region, including Ohio State, are relaxing policies on face coverings for classroom spaces. However, if outbreaks are severe, they will respond and may require them again. Institutions that have had vaccine requirements are planning to continue them this fall, spurred by the emergence of the BA.5 variant. In the past 14 days, cases across the U.S. not only have increased by about 20% – all but three states are seeing rises – but deaths (+38%) and hospitalizations (+15%) have spiked, too.