The Orange County Health Director has urged the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to move to online education as the default for the Fall semester and to restrict on-campus housing as the COVID-19 pandemic in the county worsens.
Health Director Quintana Stewart made the recommendations in a July 29 letter to UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz.
As of this week, UNC-Chapel Hill is moving forward with in-person classes. Thousands of students began moving into residence halls this week in a full-capacity dorm plan that the Centers for Disease Control considers to be “highest risk.”
In the letter, Stewart expressed concern over signs that student returns have already contributed to spikes and clusters of infections.
From the letter:
To date, Orange County has been home of approximately 1,241 lab confirmed positive COVID-19 cases and 45 deaths. Over the past month we’ve watched our daily case count nearly double with record highs in early July of 38 new cases per day. We’ve also seen an increase in cases for those in the 18-24 age group (22%) and the 24-49 age group (37%). While the data reports that our local cases appear to be stabilizing the last couple of weeks, we at public health know this is not a totally accurate picture of what is happening in our community. As the State moved into Phase 2 and things began to open up, we saw an increase in our cases. As students have begun to return to campus prior to the official start of the Fall Semester we’ve experienced a small fraction of what we will see if the campus fully reopens and all the students return for in-person class. In the last 4 weeks we’ve seen positive COVID clusters among UNC staff and athletic teams. We’ve experienced the increased activity and gathering on Franklin Street that resulted in clusters that visited a couple of local restaurant/bar establishments. We’ve seen the off campus parties and gatherings at Greek Houses. We’ve also experienced the lack of cooperation from students with the communicable disease investigation and control measures mandated by NC General Statute §130A-144. For multiple cases staff had to spend several hours trying to gather information and cooperation from students. As a last resort, legal remedies were suggested to gain cooperation. This is absolutely not the desired outcome for our campus students. Due to the reporting structure for positive cases, our data does not necessarily capture each of these cases as they are attributed to the home county of residence, however the reality is Orange County Health Department Staff and UNC Campus Health Staff have been tasked with the monitoring and investigation of these cases here in Orange County.
UNC-Chapel Hill students are already reporting invitations to large house parties organized by student athletes and in-person fraternity and sorority rush events that do not include masks or social distancing.
On Monday a UNC-Chapel Hill student posted a video to Twitter depicting what he said was a large group of young women engaging in a sorority rush event. None were wearing masks or practicing distancing.
While fraternity and sorority recruitment is officially entirely virtual this year, sources in Greek organizations at UNC-Chapel Hill confirmed to Policy Watch last week and again this week that a number of unofficial “dirty rush” events are being held off campus. The events are promoted via word of mouth, closed social media groups and text messages, several of which have been examined by Policy Watch.
UNC Faculty have also noticed the lack of distancing and mask compliance to exhibited by students returning to campus and around town in Chapel Hill.
“I hope all will go well,” said Deb Aikat, associate professor in UNC-Chapel Hill’s school of Journalism and Media. “But there is already some evidence that students and employees and faculty are being affected by COVID.”
It is not difficult for those on and around campus to see that some students and community members aren’t taking the pandemic seriously enough.
“If you take a walk on Franklin Street nobody is wearing a mask nobody is social distancing” Aikat said. “I was there yesterday on Franklin Street. I was appalled.”
While the school is not requiring tests for all students, the new COVID-19 campus dashboard shows 175 total infections among those tested on campus — 139 of them students. That’s a cumulative positive rate of 10.6 percent.
The dashboard shows 13 student infections the week of 7/20 and a positive rate of 11.1 percent. It shows 13 student infections for the week of 7/27, the last week before most students began to move onto campus, for a positive rate of 8.6 percent. The current statewide infection rate is 8 percent.
In her letter, Stewart advised going to online instruction for the entire Fall semester but at a minimum for at least the first five weeks of classes. She also calls for restricting on campus housing to “at-risk students with no access to equitable educational resources and those with true housing needs (i.e. International students, Carolina Covenant & marginalized students) in order to provide single-occupancy rooms, which should significantly slow community spread.