University administrators answered questions regarding the recent spike in COVID-19 cases within the University community and speculation that it is due to in-person Greek life recruitment at a virtual town hall Friday afternoon. The seven panelists also discussed vaccine efficacy, the presence of the B.1.1.7. U.K. variant and plans for next fall, among other topics.
Panelists included University President Jim Ryan, Dean of Students Allen Groves, Provost Liz Magill, Chief Operating Officer J.J. Davis, Department of Medicine Chair Mitch Rosner, Director of Hospital Epidemiology Costi Sifri and Taison Bell, director of University hospital's Intensive Care Unit.
Ryan began by apologizing on behalf of University leadership for not preventing the recent spike in cases and acknowledging the burden that the University’s additional restrictions place on students. These restrictions — which were announced Tuesday — ban all in-person gatherings and urge students to restrict movement outside residences to essential activities until at least Feb. 26, when they will be reevaluated.
“I know the news on Tuesday might have caught some of you by surprise, and I'm sorry that we weren't able to provide more notice, but as I said, we felt we needed to act quickly,” Ryan said. “Rising cases [don’t] appear to be due to a particular variant of the virus, nor due to a particular group of people not following the rules. Instead, case trends suggest that many students on and off Grounds were not adhering to health and safety protocols.”
Ryan said that there is “no doubt” that recruitment contributed to the rise in cases and willful violations of public health guidelines. Still, Ryan said that there “were dozens if not hundreds of other interactions completely outside the context of rush” that have also added to the recent increase.
Rosner confirmed this, adding that the spike is the result of many small gatherings both on and off Grounds where students violated public health guidelines — not one major “superspreader” event.
Throughout IFC recruitment, potential new members are encouraged to visit multiple chapters — particularly within the first two rounds. In-person events hosted by fraternities during recruitment were required to be approved by the IFC’s Governing Board and meet all University, city and state public health guidelines. While the ISC banned chapters from hosting in-person rounds throughout recruitment, chapters were permitted to have in-person events on bid day.
The University previously said in a University-wide email Thursday afternoon that there was no evidence that in-person components of Greek life recruitment were primarily responsible for the increase in cases.
Ryan said that the University could not have legally applied a ban on in-person recruitment events without doing the same to the entire student body. When recruitment occurred, the University had implemented a six-person gathering limit accompanied by strict masking and social distancing guidelines. Ryan said the University was in constant contact with leaders of Greek organizations during recruitment to reiterate these measures.
“In hindsight, perhaps we should have tried harder to discourage all in-person rush events,” Ryan said. “It may seem obvious at this point that there would be violations, and we might seem somewhere between clueless and naive to have thought otherwise — I get that — but this was another situation where we were trying sincerely to strike the right balance between freedom and trust on the one hand and complete control on the other.”
According to Ryan, the University Police Department and Ambassadors were enlisted to monitor activity at Greek houses, the Corner and on Grounds. Groves confirmed that the University has brought cases for COVID-19 violations against five fraternities, but did not specify when these reports were filed.
Rosner spoke to the dramatic increase in cases within the University community the past week, during which 648 cases were reported over a four-day period. The University recorded two record-breaking single-day caseloads this week on both Monday and Tuesday, which saw 121 and 229 cases, respectively. A combined total of 297 cases were reported Wednesday and Thursday, meaning that there are currently 844 active cases of COVID-19 within the University community and 1,272 total cases this spring.
According to Rosner, these cases were widespread across the entire University, and approximately 75 percent of cases belong to students living off Grounds. A map of cases shown during the town hall shows that while there are a number of cases within first-year residence halls, many cases are also distributed among off-Grounds residences behind the Corner and around Rugby Road.
Quarantine occupancy is currently at 49 percent — an all-time high. Rosner said that quarantine and isolation capacity fluctuates daily as the University adds and shifts rooms around to meet its needs, and Davis confirmed that the University continues to have enough space to accommodate students.
“We're at the point in case numbers, I should say, where it would be easy to tip into a spiral that could overwhelm our capacity to deal with the virus,” Ryan said. “We could run out of space for isolation and quarantine or we could inadvertently spread the virus into the local community.”
As opposed to the fall semester, during which case numbers decreased after students were quarantined or isolated, Rosner said that despite “aggressive testing,” numbers this semester suggest more transmission among students because cases have continued to rise even as students are isolated and quarantined.
No students have developed serious illnesses or required hospitalization, according to Rosner. Three new patients were admitted to the hospital Thursday, bringing the total number of hospitalizations up to 40.
Rosner also addressed the presence of the U.K. variant in the University community, which the University first confirmed in an update last Friday.
“It's key to note that this variant really ups the ante — it will find the cracks in our armor [and] it's more likely to infect those people who aren't following the guidelines,” Rosner said. “Despite pandemic fatigue, it's really not the time for slacking off on these public health measures.”
Sifri addressed questions about vaccine efficacy against COVID-19 and variants, including the U.K. variant. He said that the University has now provided over 40,000 doses to the community, and that approximately 15 percent of the county has received at least the first dose of the vaccine.
Following a question about the University’s decision to continue in-person classes despite its ban on in-person gatherings, Rosner said that the University feels comfortable allowing students and faculty to return to classrooms, which he said is one of the “most controlled environments” the University has. Approximately 27 percent of courses offer an in-person component this semester.
Magill also briefly addressed the University’s plans for the fall semester.
“Our expectation is that we will be in normal operations [in the fall] but of course we will be ready to pivot if we need to,” Magill said. “Our sincere hope is that we can have a regular fall with students in the classroom.”