New COVID outbreaks at UNC system schools lead to growing concern about return to campuses

This week East Carolina University halted all its athletic activities after a Tuesday announcement that 27 people among its student athletes, coaches and athletic staff have tested positive for COVID-19.

The announcement comes a week after UNC-Chapel Hill made a similar move, announcing 37 people had tested positive.

These outbreaks among the relatively small number of students and athletic staff back on campus for voluntary practices and conditioning ahead of the Fall semester are leading to greater concern among students, faculty and staff as to what will happen when tens of thousands of students all return to the 17 campuses in the UNC system next month.

On Monday UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and other administrators faced questions about testing, transparency and potential “off-ramps” on the return plan at a Faculty Executive Committee. Their answers did not satisfy many of the 100-plus attendees.

While admitting the positive tests among athletes, coaches and staff were concerning, Guskiewicz highlighted the positive. The episode showed that the testing and contact tracing protocols in place worked, he said, allowing the school to catch the cluster of infections and halt athletic activities.

Many faculty and students at the meeting didn’t see it that way.

Deb Aikat, an associate professor of journalism and media, pointed out that one case of mumps on campus in January led to an Alert Carolina message to the entire UNC community. But the UNC community only found out about the dozens of positive COVID-19 tests through media reports after the university had been gathering test results for a month.

Deb Aikat, School of Journalism, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


“A lot of parents have called me to ask why they weren’t informed,” Aikat said. “With COVID there is evidence that there are airborne means where you can get it. There is increasing concern.”

Guskiewicz said those who had come into contact with those who tested positive were alerted but did not offer an answer as to why the wider community wasn’t alerted.

Guskiewicz and Provost Bob Blouin said the university has been working with Orange County Public Health but has a responsibility to protect the anonymity of students and patients who test positive.

That explanation didn’t satisfy faculty, who pointed out that reporting the number of cases — as the university eventually did — did not in any way compromise the anonymity of those testing positive.

“Don’t you think we have a duty, just in the spirit of transparency, to inform our community?” Aikat asked.

Ken Pittman, executive director for Campus Health, said mumps is relatively rare and so warranted a community alert.

“With COVID, frankly, we are now in a situation of significant community spread as everyone knows,” Pittman said. “And with that community spread quite frankly we would be communicating sometimes on a daily basis a running total of what those positive results are.”

A periodic release has been determined to make more sense, Pittman said.

Eric Muller, a law professor, said he found it hard to understand why the university would not at least make a weekly report — particularly given the concern of sudden spikes and wide outbreaks.

“Suppose that in a given day, you report on Monday that from Wednesday to Thursday the number of cases jumps by a very large number,” Muller said. “That’s presumably something the campus would be entitled to know about. I’m having a hard time understanding what weighs against disclosure of that information. But I’d like to be educated.”

Blouin said administrators have talked a lot about how much to disclose and how frequently and will be discussing it further.

Asked about “off-ramps” that would lead to returning to online-only instruction, Guskiewicz said any off-ramp decision made before the beginning of the semester would have to be made in consultation with the UNC System office. After the beginning of the semester, in reaction to outbreaks, the decision would be a local one.

He again resisted answering what number of students, faculty or staff would have to fall ill or die before that decision was made. Instead, he gave four broad areas the university would monitor to make the decsion:

1) Has the campus community embraced and adhered to community guidelines?

2) Are Campus Health  and the hospitals being overrun in any way?

3) Is UNC Health able to do effective contact tracing?

4) Are the critical functions for on-campus operations able to continue and continue at a high quality?

Of special concern, Guskiewicz said, is whether the supplies to continue doing testing remain available. As spikes happen throughout the Southeast and Texas materials are becoming more limited.

Greear Webb, a rising sophomore, told administrators that except for students in unsafe home situations and those who need to be on campus for research, students shouldn’t be returning to campus at all in the Fall. But if a return is inevitable, he said, students should be more involved in planning and decision making. There are currently no students on the committee devising the still-changing “roadmap” for return, he said.

Greear Webb

“The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has established national guidelines for higher education,” Webb said. “And the way UNC’s roadmap is written, we are at medium risk — not the lowest risk possible. I’m questioning why that is, why we wouldn’t choose to go with the lowest risk when it comes to the CDC.”

As Policy Watch has reported, the CDC has established three “general settings” risk categories — Lowest Risk, More Risk and Highest Risk — in its “Considerations for Institutions of Higher Education.”  The classroom situation proposed by UNC-Chapel Hill (and most UNC schools that have so far released plans) falls under “More Risk.” The CDC characterizes “More Risk” as “small in-person classes, activities, and events. Individuals remain spaced at least 6 feet apart and do not share objects (e.g., hybrid virtual and in-person class structures or staggered/rotated scheduling to accommodate smaller class sizes).

UNC-Chapel Hill initially announced that students would be spaced within three feet of each other while wearing masks in class. After push-back from students, faculty and staff the school amended that to six feet, in line with the CDC guidelines.

The CDC has also  ranks “On Campus Housing Settings” risk categories  as Lowest Risk, More Risk and Highest Risk . UNC’s proposed on-campus housing falls under “Highest Risk,” which the CDC characterizes as “Residence halls are open at full capacity including shared spaces (e.g., kitchens, common areas).”

The campus currently plans to have students live in full-capacity dorms, just as they would in non-pandemic conditions. Bathrooms , kitchens and common areas would be shared.

The campus has 32 residence halls. Two of them will be used to separate students exposed to COVID-19 (Craige North residence hall) and those who test positive (Parker residence hall).


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