Health and Science

Fraternities blamed for campus coronavirus outbreaks as universities struggle to keep students in class

Key Points
  • Fraternities at the University of Tennessee were chastised this week for hosting secret parties and giving out tips on how to get a Covid-19 test without reporting it to the school.
  • The University of Wisconsin at Madison also recently cited coronavirus outbreaks stemming from fraternities.
  • The outbreaks have become so severe that testing strategies and contract tracing efforts may not be able to keep up, medical experts say.
One Revolution, residents of the Somerville and Medford communities protest outside of Tufts University President Anthony Monaco's house in Medford, MA on Aug. 18, 2020. They feel the reopening plan is reckless and they don't want students to return to campus and hold classes in person.
David L. Ryan | Boston Globe | Getty Images

Climbing Covid-19 cases among university students living in fraternity and sorority houses in the U.S. have threatened to overturn carefully crafted plans for returning students to campus, school officials said. 

At the University of Tennessee,  Chancellor Donde Plowman called out fraternities Tuesday for hosting secret parties and giving others tips on how to avoid the police and get a coronavirus test without reporting it to the university. 

"We are having a significant issue with a small number of students, and we have disturbing information stemming, frankly, from the fraternities in particular," she said in an online address to students and staff.

The school had 779 active Covid-19 cases as of Thursday and more than 2,400 students in quarantine, according to its Covid-19 data. The university was forced to secure a nearby hotel to increase isolation space for infected students, she added. 

"Our case counts are going up way too fast, and we will need more drastic measures to stop the upward trajectory," Plowman said. "We're evaluating a range of options and, let me be clear, everything is on the table."

The University of Tennessee isn't alone. Colleges and universities across the country have reported growing cases in off-campus Greek life houses as students return to school, threatening the health of their surrounding communities and the remainder of their time in the classroom this fall. Some have canceled sorority and fraternity events to slow the outbreaks while others have asked students to consider moving out. 

On Sunday, the University of New Hampshire said it traced 11 Covid-19 cases to a fraternity party that hosted roughly 100 people without masks. Officials placed the house on interim suspension and ordered all of its members to quarantine for two weeks, threatening to punish the students and party organizers.

"Let me be clear: this is reckless behavior and the kind of behavior that undermines our planning and will lead to us switching to a fully remote mode," UNH President James Dean Jr. said in a statement.

Infectious disease experts have previously warned that the rising number of Covid-19 cases on college campuses isn't surprising. Despite universities making coronavirus testing, contact tracing, social distancing and uniform mask wearing central to their reopening plans, the virus is still ravaging through local communities where many students live off-campus, they said. 

"There's the unknowns, the dangers of the things you cannot control. There's a fraternity party, the students decide to go out and go to a nightclub," said Dr. Carlos del Rio, a professor at the Emory University School of Medicine who specializes in infectious diseases. "There's so many other things that can happen which can increase your risk." 

Communal housing where spaces were designed to be shared, like residence halls, fraternities and sororities, pose a high risk of infection for students who live there and share spaces, said Dr. Preeti Malani, chief health officer and professor of medicine and infectious disease at the University of Michigan. 

"What you need to do is try to keep the number of cases small and prevent large outbreaks. That's the trick," Malani said, adding that universities should focus on where the cases are coming from and prevent them from spreading to the local community. "My sense is that every campus is going to see a lot of cases, but what's happening outside those cases?"

At Indiana University, officials asked students living in Greek housing on Thursday to "re-evaluate" their living situations after fraternity and sorority houses reported a spike in their so-called positivity rate, or the percent of total tests returning positive. In some houses, the university said the rate is above 50%. 

Indiana University officials noted that its Greek life houses have a high density of students living in close contact, sharing bathrooms and other spaces, and provide ample opportunity for the coronavirus to spread among students. Since the houses are privately owned, the university said it has no authority over whether students leave or stay. 

IU's medical response team said that the virus's spread has become "so severe" that its testing strategies and contact tracing efforts may be unable to contain the transmission. 

"This spread poses a risk to uninfected individuals in the Greek community, students outside of the Greek community, as well as faculty and staff at Indiana University Bloomington," the team said in a statement. 

The University of Wisconsin at Madison on Thursday ordered members of nine off-campus sorority and fraternity houses to quarantine for two weeks after roughly 9% of their members tested positive. UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank told students on Wednesday that undergraduate classes would be moved online for two weeks while the university tries to lessen the coronavirus's spread. 

"We've reached the point where we need to quickly flatten the curve of infection, or we will lose the opportunity to keep campus open to students this semester," Blank said during a video announcement. 

Those universities follow reports from Kansas State University in late August, which halted its Greek life events after four sororities reported outbreaks, resulting in more than 20 cases, according to the Riley County Health Department. As of Tuesday, the agency reported 12 active outbreaks among fraternities and sororities. 

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