University of Washington and Greek Row struggle to contain COVID-19 outbreak

As the coronavirus spreads through the University of Washington’s fraternities and sororities, the school contends it can’t do much to contain the outbreak — the second to hit Greek Row since June.

UW and local public health officials have advised the students on safety, met with chapter presidents and had them submit COVID-19 prevention plans. But students who live nearby report big parties that stretch into the early-morning hours and seem to invite further infections — and the cluster is starting to have effects beyond the Greek system.

The current outbreak was identified Sept. 11 with two cases and has grown to 179 as of Tuesday afternoon. The number of confirmed cases has climbed by about 37% in just the past four days, from 131 cases as of 4 p.m. Friday, according to the university’s tally.

Two weeks ago, Annie Stephens moved into McCarty Hall, which is on the northern edge of campus and across Northeast 45th Street from Greek Row. She said she could hear loud Greek Row parties every night until Sunday.

“It’s pretty frustrating to hear big parties happening every single night while people in dorms are being told that they can’t even be in an elevator with more than three people,” Stephens said.

UW has instituted outbreak prevention restrictions in dormitories, such as restricting the number of people who can ride in an elevator, closing some common spaces and moving furniture in common places to encourage adequate distancing, said university spokesperson Victor Balta.

“Certainly, the university has more control over the spaces that it operates, such as residence halls and dining areas,” he said.

The university contends its options are limited because the 45-house Greek system is located off-campus, but fraternities and sororities could lose university recognition if there are ongoing compliance issues, Balta said.

If a chapter loses university recognition it can still operate but can’t participate in university activities.

UW’s administration hoped that the Husky PACK Pledge sent to students, faculty and staff a couple of weeks ago would encourage good behavior. The pledge details what students should do to protect themselves and those around them.

Despite the pledge, positive cases continue to increase in the Greek system.

“The congregant living situation in the Greek community certainly presents a greater challenge and we will continue to work with them to respond effectively and try to limit the spread,” Balta said.

Infections have been reported in 15 houses: nine sororities and six fraternities. The university declined to identify the houses with positive cases and is hoping to avoid sanctions so as not to dissuade people from sharing information about things like positive cases, Balta said.

The first outbreak in June infected 154 students in 15 fraternity houses.

UW is not aware of any students who have been hospitalized or have reported severe symptoms.

All the Greek houses submitted COVID-19 prevention plans based on guidance from Public Health – Seattle & King County and UW, Balta said.

In addition to the prevention plans, Public Health, UW’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life and the university’s department of Environmental Health and Safety have been meeting regularly with chapter presidents and attending chapter house meetings to speak about outbreak prevention.

UW and Public Health have also written a letter to the chapter’s national leaders outlining the expectations for containing this and future outbreaks, Balta said.

Residence halls, which normally house about 10,000 students, have around 4,100 this term, Victor Balta told The Seattle Times on Saturday. The Greek system population has also been reduced to half capacity in an effort to ward off outbreaks, with fraternities and sororities housing about 2,000 students.

Fewer students living in Greek houses, and the measures taken by UW and Public Health, hasn’t stopped the parties or the outbreak.

Kristin, who didn’t want her last name used or which sorority she belongs to because she isn’t sure how much she is allowed to say, said the Sigma Chi fraternity on the corner of 18th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 45th Street has been having regular parties. She has seen groups of 15 or more people going into the house without masks and not social distancing.

She is renting a room at a nearby fraternity because her sorority decided to close for the time being and she needed to be near campus because she has a class requiring in-person instruction.

“It’s incredibly stressful because that could easily be an event that leads to spreading and I would really prefer not to get sick,” she said. “Especially since I have a class on campus that I have to be here for. I don’t want to get those people sick. I don’t want to potentially have to go home and get my family sick.”

She has reported the house to Interfraternity Council (IFC) but doesn’t know if anything ever came of the complaint.

Sigma Chi’s president didn’t return a phone call or email from The Seattle Times. Emails to the IFC also went unanswered.

The outbreak has had an impact beyond Greek Row.

Molly Stamey is a freshman and Stephens’ roommate. She knows people living in McCarty Hall have been going to fraternity parties and have had to quarantine because of doing so.

“It is kind of surprising to see people still doing all those things, even though they know that there’s a very high risk,” Stamey said.

The outbreak is a concern, especially because Greek life is in a congregate setting, which has proven to be conducive to spreading SARS-CoV-2, said Sharon Bogan, a spokesperson with Public Health – Seattle & King County.

COVID-19 infections have also hit the state’s other large Greek system, on Washington State University’s Pullman campus. Since fall semester began Aug. 24, 661 people in the Greek community have tested positive and 659 students on campus have contracted COVID-19 as of Sunday.

Of the 40 sororities and fraternities at WSU, 13 have chosen not to open this semester and the remaining chapter houses have reduced occupancy and have plans and procedures in place, said WSU spokesperson Phil Weiler.

UW has been testing students off and on campus. The university worked with the Greater Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network Study, or SCAN study, and tested 1,256 Greek members between Sept. 8 and Sept. 20, before they moved into their houses, and found four positive cases.

The Husky Coronavirus Testing program, which launched Sept. 24 in collaboration with the Seattle Flu study, has tested 2,413 students on the Seattle campus with 2.1% testing positive, according to the university’s coronavirus dashboard.

UW Medicine tested 1,620 students living in residence halls between Sept. 22 and 25 and found five positive cases.

UW Greek alums and house corporation boards should help their chapters take the steps necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19, said Dr. Jeff Duchin, Public Health – Seattle & King County’s public health officer, wrote in a blog post on Public Health Insider.

“We don’t want to see this spread to the greater UW community or surrounding areas or threaten our ability to have in-person learning in the future,” he wrote.

The university’s community relations team has been in contact with the surrounding neighborhood, Balta said.

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