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UA President: Fall Semester Could Include A Quarantined Dorm, Sports With No Fans

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: The University of Arizona has fewer than 90 days to decide what its fall semester will look like and whether–and how many students–will be living and taking classes on campus. And research related to COVID-19 testing and contact tracing has been ramped up. The university began holding regular updates by its task force last week, and its latest was [Wednesday]. That's when I caught up with Dr. Robert Robbins, UA's president. I started by asking him for the rundown on progress he's seeing with the university's research.

ROBERT ROBBINS: I think we're pretty close on having a protocol for contact tracing. I think we're really close on, if someone tests positive, we've identified an area, a whole dorm that has doors to the outside that we can look after, in a holistic way, their food needs, their Wi-Fi needs so they can stay connected to class while they're in quarantine, medical needs and establishing a small infirmary unit. If they got a little bit sicker or if they were having fever and just didn't feel right and we thought we needed to monitor them more carefully in that same building, you'd be progressed down to the infirmary. And of course, if we thought they were really, really sick and need to go the hospital just across the street, we've got University Medical Center with our partner Banner. What we really need is, you know, if the world were fair and we could run the tests and we could afford them, we'd test everybody every day. But that's just not feasible. So what we're saying is "Test all, test smart."

GOLDSTEIN: At what point are you, with all the recommendations and the developments, at what point are you going to have to decide what the on-campus looks like in August? 

ROBBINS: I think what we're seeing now, we're 89 days out. I would like to have all of our policies, procedures, all the data — watching, the epidemiological data in Tucson, southern Arizona — to be able to make a "go, no go" about a month out. So that would put us at July 24.

GOLDSTEIN: There has been a report in Arizona, at least, perhaps June 11, might be this peak day, based on the data. Can you give me an idea of what your perspective is on that in terms of when it comes to your package of testing and trying to get the campus open in August? What do you think about over the next couple of weeks?

ROBBINS: Yeah, we're going to be watching that data daily and watch it, and I've said all along, I don't think that first wave has peaked yet. So we'll be looking and analyzing that data very carefully and then see what happens after that peak. If we can get back to a flattened, low incident curve, then I think we would continue to move forward. That would still give us about six weeks to make a final decision. But invariably, there's going to be a second wave. We're really pushing everyone getting standard flu shots so we can be protected against those infections. But I think we're going to be in this mode until we get a vaccine. And it may be this time next year before we have one. It may be this time two years from now. So we've got to figure out, can we operate the university in a face-to-face mode, or do we just simply say it's too much risk and we just stay all digital until there's a vaccine? 

GOLDSTEIN: Up here in the valley in Scottsdale, we saw people over the Memorial Day weekend having a good time, which is fine, but having a good time, very close together, which is not as good an idea these days. Considering you'll be dealing with a lot of young people — and that's not to say they're less responsible, but they're less experienced — does that concern you at all when it comes to social distancing?

ROBBINS: Absolutely. My biggest concern, for the 6,500 or so students that live in our residential facilities, we can put some more guidelines and policies in place. But if they live off campus, let's say across Park Street in one of the big high rises and they're living four to a room and not socially distancing, they're still going to come back across the campus and go to class. So that's, that's a big concern for me. And so we're hoping that through great educational programs, through great engagement with our students, using them as ambassadors — I really love what Governor Daniels at Purdue University is doing, almost a pledge that they are, you know, students that come back will be socially responsible to protect humanity and will follow the rules with social distancing, covering of the face when you can't properly socially distance. Very good hand washing and be attentive to symptoms, testing. And then if you test positive, volunteer to provide us with as much information of people that you've come in contact with so that we can do contact tracing. And then if you are positive, go to this dorm for quarantine.

GOLDSTEIN: Obviously, many of us are huge sports fans and people love going to the games. We have no idea when people are actually going to be able to attend games again. But tell me about what you at the U of A are thinking about as far as football coming in the fall and then not much after that, men's and women's basketball. I'm sure you've been in communication with the Pac-12. What kind of time table are we looking at for there? Is it possible that the games are played as usual, but just no fans?

ROBBINS: I think that's the most likely. If there is going to be a game played, it would be in front of no fans, at least for the Pac-12. That's my sense of things. I think we came out with a statement yesterday that there'll be voluntary workouts on our campus beginning June 15. So we'll bring some fall athletes back, small numbers at a time. And of course, we'll test them and we'll start to see how sort of a dress rehearsal for August 24 and see can we manage a group of athletes, a group of "performers," meaning students both undergrad and graduate students who are coming back to research labs. We're going to, we've continued about, 200 of our 800 labs have been doing COVID-type research and and other research. For instance, the OSIRIS-REx program is continued to operate using all of the good public health hygiene policies. And so that'll give us a bit of, as I said, dress rehearsal with people doing research, people that are performers, either dancers or musicians or artists. And we'll get at least a test cohort that will come in in the next several weeks, and we'll see if our system can work.

ROBBINS: That is Dr. Robert Robbins. He is the president of the U of A. Dr. Robbins, thank you. Take care. Be well.

GOLDSTEIN: OK, Steve. Thanks for having me on your program.

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.