Test, Trace, Treat

A Tactical Plan to Reopen the University of Arizona

By Jay Gonzales

With a medical doctor as president and a solid plan in place, the University of Arizona made national news when it announced the campus planned to reopen this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Not only is President Robert C.    Robbins a doctor, his practice as a cardiac surgeon has given him vast experience in dealing with potential viruses and infections – expertise that’s in the room every time he’s part of a discussion on the COVID-19 response.

Elsewhere, the doctors and scientists from UArizona Health Sciences and the BIO5 Institute have quickly mobilized to develop an antibody test that is the foundation of the effort to bring students, faculty and staff back for fall classes. Banner Health, which operates Banner-University Medicine Tucson, launched drive-through COVID-19 testing at its hospital on March 23.

Finally, selecting former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Richard Carmona, a distinguished professor of public health and a professor of surgery and pharmacy, to lead UArizona’s Reentry Task Force of experts was the final stroke of foresight.

“We’ve been on this now since mid-March and I think we’re way ahead of most places,” Robbins said following a May task force briefing. “We all saw this really early on. When I knew this was coming, I said we’ve got to test. And the problem was, we didn’t have any test kits, so we made our own test kits.”

In early April, the BIO5 Institute, with lead researchers Dr. Deepta Bhattacharya and Dr. Janko Nikolich-Žugich, announced the development of an antibody test that would be used to test UArizona students, faculty and staff upon return to campus. 

Two weeks later, UArizona announced a partnership with the state of Arizona to test 250,000 healthcare workers and first responders. The state pledged $3.5 million for the effort. Then on April 30, Robbins announced that, with the antibody testing capability in place, the university was launching a plan to hold on-campus classes in the fall.

A Reentry Task Force, headed by Carmona, was formed and launched on May 20.

“I’ve asked him to be the commander, the aggregator of all of the activities as we think about how this pandemic is affecting our entire campus, and to be able to look at the data, aggregate it, collate it, and report it up to me so that we can have a central source of data and make informed decisions about whether to go forward with this reentry plan,” Robbins said.

While UArizona’s intention is to reopen, Robbins stressed that the objective of the task force is to determine if that’s possible considering all that must be in place to bring everyone back to campus and safely keep them there. A final decision has not been made to start classes on campus pending development of a definitive plan by the task force.

“The emphasis was always on safety,” Carmona said of his early discussions with Robbins on the reentry plan. “He said, ‘Richard, I want you to give me a plan. Tell me how to do this, but we’re not doing it unless it’s safe.’ ”

With his background as a doctor, as the former U.S. surgeon general and in law enforcement, Carmona has established a process familiar to him – an incident command system. “The civilian world uses it. The military uses it. The government uses it,” Carmona said. It gives the task force an organizational structure where information can be centralized and focus can remain on the mission.

Members of the task force held their first public briefing on May 27 and outlined the different areas that must be researched to satisfy UArizona administration – and the university community – that it will be safe to return to campus. Foremost, those will be testing, tracing and treating. But they also include communication, regular wellness checks for everyone on campus, safety inside and outside buildings, proper dorm capacity and the development of a phone app that will track students potentially exposed to COVID-19.

UArizona Provost Liesl Folks said that while data suggests students are less susceptible to COVID-19’s worst complications, faculty and staff in the higher age bracket must have assurances that everyone is taking the necessary precautions.

“The risk of developing serious complications from COVID-19 is incredibly low among the 20- to 29-year-old age demographic,” Folks said. “In fact, we’re blessed here in Tucson that our population’s median age is 33.3 years, which is wonderful in terms of the risks that we see from COVID-19 in our community.

“Our student population tends to skew very young and Tucson skews very young. What that tells us though is that one of our core challenges is making sure that our faculty and staff, who may be in higher risk categories, are able to protect themselves. We’re working through that process now to work out how can we provide maximum flexibility in the ways we deliver instruction on campuses.”

Like everything else during the pandemic, new information and data develop daily. What the task force knows today is significantly less than what it will know in a month, two months or by August 24, when UArizona intends to begin classes. A decision on the plan to return to campus must be made at least 30 days ahead of the scheduled start of classes, Folks said.

“We want to make sure that if we’re not going to come back to campus and not going to welcome people back to the dorms, that we give people at least a month of notice,” Folks said.

“I am constantly reminded we are a large campus. We’re like a small city and all of our decisions have to be informed by what’s going on around us, as well as what we can control and what we can modify to maximize protections on our own campus. We’re not operating in isolation and the decision needs to be made in concert with all of our state and local authorities.”

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