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N4T Investigators: Troublesome Testing

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TUCSON (KVOA) - It's your COVID-19 relief money but not all of it has been going to you. Some federal dollars meant to help Pima County taxpayers have been spent on the University of Arizona students, living in off-campus apartments.  The News 4 Tucson Investigators asked county officials why this is where they're spending their time and your money. 

The News 4 Tucson Investigators found documents show the county spent more than $100,000 testing students. They live in apartments off-campus. According to the county, their landlords and the U of A didn’t pay a penny for their tests. You did.   

Pima County received nearly 90-million federal dollars for Covid-19 relief. The money was meant to help taxpayers.

The News 4 Tucson Investigators asked why the county is using the money to pay to test students.

"We think it will make a difference in terms of the health and well-being of the people of this county," Dr. Fransisco Garcia, a Deputy County Administrator said.

Data from the U of A showed nearly 40% of first-year undergraduate students attending this fall aren’t from Arizona.   

The News 4 Tucson Investigators asked if the county asked the U of A and the apartment complexes to foot the bill? After all, they asked students to return, not taxpayers.

"The public health perspective has to be focused on how do we prevent infection in this community and if we have to wait for someone else to write the check in order to prevent that infection... We’d still be waiting,” Dr. Garcia said.

Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik said the apartments have money to pay for tests but don’t have room for students to quarantine.   

“The corporate irresponsibility of these tower managers is just breathtaking," Kozachik said. "They have intentionally leased these towers up to 90% capacity.”  

The News 4 Tucson Investigators called and emailed the apartments to ask if that’s true.

One manager said just over 70% of his rooms are leased and not every resident lives with a roommate. He couldn’t give an official statement or interview.

Urbane Apartments provided the following statement:

"The health and wellbeing of Urbane residents and the broader community is of the utmost importance. Our team is working closely with the Pima County Health Department to facilitate COVID-19 testing for residents.  Those test results are private and are not shared with Urbane. The Pima County Health Department provides residents who test positive detailed instructions regarding self-isolation.  All Urbane residents have their own bedroom should they need to self-isolate.  The University of Arizona also provides isolation housing to students living off-campus who need to self-quarantine.  We will continue to operate our property in compliance with CDC and local guidance, including preventative measures such as frequent disinfection of high-touch areas, use of face coverings, encouraging social distancing and limiting gathering size.

The News 4 Tucson Investigators never heard back from the others.  So, we asked students living in them, do you have a designated space to quarantine away from a roommate?  

Every student we asked said no or no, not that they are aware of or heard about.

Students said if they test positive, they don't have space to quarantine in their apartments. They could go to the U of A's COVID-19 positive dorm but they don't want to give up their luxury living.

The News 4 Tucson Investigators asked how does it benefit the taxpayer to pay for students' tests when regardless of the result they likely won't or they can't quarentine?

“The reason that it matters is because then we are able to identify the people in their social circle who may be at risk and reach out to them," Dr. Garcia said. "Realize that by staying home even if you happen to share an apartment with 3 other folks, who are probably infected anyways, staying home actually makes sense.”  

Dr. Garcia said each test costs $140 on the low end.  

County documents showed from late August to mid-September about 900 students were tested. They were at off-campus student housing locations. These tests were free to students but they cost taxpayers.  

The News 4 Tucson Investigators did the math $140 per test given out to 900 students, which is nearly $130,000.  

Dr. Garcia said if the pandemic continues others may be asked to chip in. For now, he has a message for students.

“We are all exhausted but at this time, this is the wrong time for us to loosen up on mitigation um because we’re actually on the mend," Dr. Garcia said. "We’re actually starting to trend in the correct direction.” 

A spokesperson for the U of A sent the following statement to the News 4 Tucson Investigators regarding its testing operations.

"The University of Arizona and Pima County have always been strong partners, and during this pandemic this partnership has only deepened. The University alone has conducted over 20,000 tests to our off-campus students, and we know our Test, Trace, and Treat strategies are working because COVID cases are plummeting in our community."

If you have a story you’d like the News 4 Tucson Investigaors to investigate email us at investigators@kvoa.Com or call our tip line at 955-4444. 

Alexis Berdine

Alexis Berdine is an Investigative Multi-Media Journalist at KVOA.

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