COVID clusters, infections mount at UNC schools as pressure increases to move online, institute universal testing

The UNC System continues to see rising COVID-19 numbers and clusters of infections, particularly in residence halls and Greek organization houses.

Troubling new data raise the question of whether and when other universities in the system will follow UNC-Chapel Hill in shifting classes online and reducing on-campus housing, as some members of the UNC Board of Governors call for universal testing for students.

Late Wednesday N.C. State announced six houses in its Greek Village were being placed under precautionary quarantine. The houses are affiliated with the Alpha Delta Pi, Beta Theta Pi, Delta Gamma, Kappa Delta, Sigma Nu and Zeta Tau Alpha organizations.

The move followed the announcement of two infection clusters — defined as five or more infections in a related location — within the Greek Village. There were six infections at the Kappa Delta sorority house and seven at the Alpha Delta Psi sorority house. A third cluster was reported at an off-campus house on Clark Avenue in Raleigh.

The campus reported 41 new positive COVID-19 tests in a single day on Wednesday — all among students. That followed Tuesday’s single-day report of 28 new positives — 27 students and one employee.

On Wednesday UNC-Chapel Hill also reported two new infection clusters,  one at Morrison Residence Hall and one at the  Zeta Psi fraternity house at 200 W. Cameron Ave., in Chapel Hill. Unlike other UNC system schools, Chapel Hill is not confirming the number of infections in its clusters as part of its alerts. The two new clusters bring the total number of clusters reported by the school to six.

UNC-Chapel Hill suspended all athletics program activity until 5 p.m. Thursday because of the upward trend of COVID-19 infections.

East Carolina University last updated its COVID-19 dashboard on Monday, showing data for the previous week. At that time it had recorded 31 new cases — 29 among students and two among employees. Sources on campus, including students and those with direct knowledge of student health services, told Policy Watch that those numbers are up significantly this week, rivaling the percentage increases seen at N.C. State and UNC-Chapel Hill.

ECU students have begun writing chalk messages all over campus encouraging the school to move online as it sees mounting infections.

Among student, faculty and staff concerns at ECU — and across the UNC System — is the fact that universities are not requiring all students to ne tested either when returning to campus or at established intervals. Therefore, the reported number of positive tests record only those students who choose to be tested, those who are tested off-campus and report it to their school, and those who are tested when identified as those identified as close contacts of those who already infected. This likely represents only a portion of the true number of infections.

UNC Board of Governors member Marty Kotis is advocating universal testing for students — a position also taken by White House Coronavirus Task Force leader Dr. Deborah Birx in a private call with state and local leaders this week.

“Each university not only has to do entrance testing,” Birx said in the call, a recording of which was obtained and reported by the Center for Public Integrity this on Thursday. “What we talked to every university about is being able to do surge testing. How are you going to do 5,000 samples in one day or 10,000 samples in one day?”

Experts with UNC Health advised against this earlier this summer in the face of similar calls from student and faculty, arguing that a negative test only represents negative status on the day it was taken. That could lead to a false sense of security, they said, and could also mean nothing if the person tested is infected the next day.

But universal testing could help schools quarantine those already infected and prevent their being introduced to residence halls and social situation on campus, Kotis said in an interview with Policy Watch this week.

“We have no idea how many of these students are positive when they come to campus, so we have no idea how many of them are encountering it in dorms or at parties or anywhere else,” Kotis said.

Two other members of UNC Board of Governors told Policy Watch they would be for universal testing this week, though they asked not to be identified out of concern of getting ahead of policy set by the board or UNC System President Peter Hans.

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