With students often crammed into houses that were hard to police and regulate before the pandemic, public health officials say they think major changes are needed to better protect the health of students and the broader community in college towns from coast to coast.
The concerns center on how easily the virus spreads during social gatherings — particularly indoor events. There is also skepticism about whether students in group housing will follow safety precautions, including forgoing roommates and communal meals, and wearing masks.
“There’s no doubt that this is a massive change, a massive transition for all of us,” said Judson Horras, president and chief executive of the North American Interfraternity Conference, a membership organization representing 6,000 undergraduate fraternity chapters and 250,000 fraternity members. “It won’t look like a normal fall this fall with social events.”
In a sign of the growing concern, the leadership at the University of California at Berkeley sent an urgent appeal Wednesday to students, noting that the number of coronavirus cases on campus had more than doubled in just a week. The majority of cases have been traced back to fraternity or sorority social gatherings, UC-Berkeley University Health Services’ medical director, Anna Harte, and assistant vice chancellor, Guy Nicolette, wrote in a letter to students.
“At the rate we are seeing increases in cases, it’s becoming harder to imagine bringing our community back in the way we are envisioning,” Harte and Nicolette wrote.
The jump in cases at UC-Berkeley comes on the heels of major outbreaks at the University of Washington and University of Mississippi, both of which have been traced to fraternity housing or social functions this summer.
At the University of Washington, in Seattle, at least 155 of the school’s 1,100 fraternity members have tested positive for the coronavirus since an outbreak began about two weeks ago, according to Erik Johnson, the president of the school’s Interfraternity Council.
At the University of Mississippi, in Oxford, health officials said last month that they had traced more than 160 cases back to off-campus fraternity rush parties, which are held to recruit new members. The University of Mississippi has warned fraternities they would be placed on probation if they are found to have hosted parties.
The PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia raised concerns in a report this week about a growing number of infections in several other college towns, including Auburn, Ala., and Tuscaloosa, Ala., where the University of Alabama is located.
The report did not specifically mention Greek life, but researchers said college towns in general should brace for a sharp increase in cases as students return for the fall semester.
“If these places are having problems with half-empty campuses, we can only assume the fall will take a major toll on these college towns,” the researchers wrote.
In recent days, residents in Kalamazoo, Mich., have been complaining to local news media that parties have continued throughout the summer near fraternity row at Western Michigan University. The complaints follow a message the school’s health center posted July 2 on Twitter warning students to change their social behaviors.
“We answer phone calls everyday from people who were in crowds, at gatherings, and then learned later someone they met was COVID-positive,” the health center wrote. “There is no ‘safe’ party that looks like parties you attended in 2019.”
In a statement, Western Michigan University said college officials are trying to strike a balance by finding ways in which students can “be social and enjoy new and old friendships” while still taking “personal responsibility,” including by staying six feet away from others as much as possible.
“Put more simply, our message is: stay social but stay safe,” said Paula Davis, a university spokeswoman.
Thomas Russo, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo, said fraternities will continue to pose a risk for rampant spread of the virus.
He said many fraternities have characteristics of a bar and indoor restaurant, both of which are said to be locations where the virus spreads efficiently.
“If they are crowded indoors, and they’re in close quarters for a long period of time, it’s just a recipe for getting infected,” Russo said. “And the setting almost guarantees if multiple individuals get infected, you suddenly have scenarios where they can spread it to 10, 20, 30 or 40 other individuals.”
Johnson said that is exactly what happened at the University of Washington this summer. He said the school’s 25 fraternities have not been having parties or large social gatherings since the virus began circulating on the West Coast this spring, which forced the university to shut down.
But as students began moving back into fraternity housing in June, the virus quickly spread among roommates, he said.
“There is not one event, or multiple events, that we can identify as being the repository of this,” said Johnson, who is a senior. “It just spread from people living in a house, or visiting others in a house to hang out, or even just running into someone at a grocery store. . . . It was truly community spread.”
Johnson said most University of Washington cases involved people who were asymptomatic, which Russo said is common for carriers of the virus who are in their late teens or early 20s.
But Russo said colleges and their broader communities should not underestimate the danger facing students and others if an outbreak occurs on campus.
“We think in that age group only a small number will become seriously ill from coronavirus,” Russo said. “But if you have thousands of people infected, unfortunately some of these young adults are still going to have a bad outcome.”
Although the covid-19 death rate among people ages 18 to 29 is very low, Russo said, students are almost certainly going to interact with university staff and faculty who could be more vulnerable, as well as parents and grandparents.
Acknowledging that risk, elected leaders and university administrators are stepping up efforts to draft new guidelines for student housing.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) on Thursday called on colleges and universities to step up coronavirus testing while also identifying housing units to “rapidly relocate individuals” should they become sick while living in residence halls or fraternity or sorority houses.
Fraternity members are also vowing to do more to police themselves, including limits on social gatherings.
Penn State’s Interfraternity Council voted Tuesday to halt all social activities indefinitely. The vote came after a 21-year-old student at the university died of coronavirus complications last month shortly after he returned home to eastern Pennsylvania. The student was not a member of a fraternity, but his death was jarring to university officials and student leaders as they prepare to resume classes in the fall.
“It is important to us that the residents of State College are not put at high risk as students return to campus this fall,” the council said in a statement.
At the University of Virginia, where the membership of 61 fraternities and sororities accounts for approximately a third of undergraduates, conversations between the school and Greek student leaders have been underway for months, said Julie Caruccio, an assistant vice president and associate dean of students. The discussions have focused on how to return to school safely.
“Our fraternity and sorority students are abundantly aware that the spotlight is on them,” Caruccio said. “They know, fairly or unfairly, that what they do is going to be watched carefully.”
One aspect of sorority and fraternity life at U-Va. that may be advantageous is that the recruitment of new members — or rush — does not occur until spring. And many of the organizations have said they will recruit new members online rather than through parties or social gatherings.
At the University of Washington, Johnson said the council is calling on fraternities to dramatically limit rental occupancy this year, even if it means chapters may need to lean on alumni or other sources to help pay the bills. Members will be encouraged to wear masks in their fraternity houses, except in their private rooms, Johnson said.
Although Johnson acknowledged that it may be hard to “change behaviors” among some upperclassmen who remember pre-coronavirus college life, he said he expects that abiding by the rules will be fairly easy for younger students.
“We are bringing in a new member class every year,” Johnson said. “Those new members won’t know what the norm was last year.”