At least 80 Washington students in fraternities test positive for coronavirus, a foreboding sign for college reopenings

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Washington's Greek Row, just north of campus, has been hit hard by an outbreak of COVID-19 with at least 10 fraternities reporting cases. - Dean Rutz/Seattle Times/TNS

SEATTLE — At least 80 students living in a dozen fraternity houses just north of the University of Washington campus have reported testing positive for COVID-19, the coronavirus disease, with hundreds of results pending.

The university learned Saturday that three fraternity residents had symptoms of COVID-19, and public health officials noticed a spike in cases from the area among people ages 18 to 20, said UW spokeswoman Michelle Ma. Since UW announced Tuesday that at least 38 students tested positive, the student-run Interfraternity Council informed the university of 42 more positive results.

More than 800 students have been tested at a site set up Monday in response to the Greek system outbreak, Ma said. The university expects to have an updated case count early next week.

Experts say the outbreak, along with cases among student athletes, is a troubling sign of what may be in store if colleges reopen in the fall. University of Washington leadership said this week they hope to reopen in-person, with larger classes held virtually, but that plans could change based on the virus’s spread.

Daniel Leifer, a pediatrician studying dermatology at UW, said he saw more than a dozen parties when walking by Greek Row in recent months. Students stood close together, and masks were nowhere to be seen, he said.

It was concerning to Leifer, who recently completed a biosecurity fellowship at Johns Hopkins University and worked with the U.S. Department of State on its response to swine flu while in college.

“I don’t hold it against college students that they’re partying with each other and getting to know each other, because that’s everyone’s college experience. It just doesn’t make for a safe campus,” Leifer said. “A lot of college reopening plans are premised on students wearing masks and social distancing. This crystallized for me that that doesn’t seem very realistic.”

UW epidemiology professor Janet Baseman said the outbreak mirrors what was seen in long-term care facilities, with COVID-19 spreading widely in communal settings.

Prior to the Greek Row outbreak, the university’s Seattle campus was reporting about 80 cases among students and staff.

“This is another reminder that we have our work cut out for us,” Baseman said. “We need to be really prepared, and we have time to prepare because it’s summer right now.”

In a letter to faculty and students this week, President Ana Mari Cauce and Provost Mark Richards broadly outlined steps — including expanded testing, contact tracing and setting up isolation rooms — the university would take to reopen in the fall if King County reaches the state’s third phase of reopening by then. But, they said, “it is possible that we have to pivot to all-remote learning, as we did in spring quarter, if the virus is spreading too quickly in our state.”

Gov. Jay Inslee released requirements last month for colleges and universities to reopen in person, including asking students and staff to self-report if they have had symptoms since their last visit to campus.

In a news conference with Inslee, Cauce said UW had asked fraternity and sorority houses to reduce occupancy by 50% and planned to decrease the number of students in residence halls.

State and federal guidance so far hasn’t accounted much for the nature of college life, Baseman said.

“What I’m seeing less of and think is really important is communication strategies for people of this age and trying to make sure that they are given the information they need for risk management and not just a set of rules,” she said. “That can be a really challenging way to communicate information to college-aged students.”

About 1,000 students are living in 25 fraternity houses, according to the university. Most sorority houses close in the summer, although some members rent rooms in fraternity houses.

Fraternity leaders at the UW say students who have tested positive or have symptoms are isolating in their rooms, and officials have asked that all students living in the houses isolate. UW doesn’t have the authority to enforce quarantines at the houses, which are independent organizations, Ma said.

The Interfraternity Council, a student-run governing board, has asked fraternity houses to stop holding social events, Ma said. The university has received reports of informal gatherings in recent months, which it is not able to stop, she said.

Public Health — Seattle & King County, which is leading the response to the outbreak, said it is not aware of any hospitalizations from the outbreak.

The university said it would not give out the names of houses with infected residents to protect their privacy. Names of some fraternities have circulated online, with some saying more than a dozen cases were in one house.

But the presidents of the house and Interfraternity Council declined to speak to The Seattle Times on Wednesday about the outbreak, as did the UW’s Office of Fraternity & Sorority Life.

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©2020 The Seattle Times