College towns growing alarmed over outbreaks among students


LAWRENCE — As waves of schools and businesses around the country are cleared to reopen, college towns are moving toward renewed shutdowns because of too many parties and too many COVID-19 infections among students.

With more than 300 students at the University of Missouri testing positive for the coronavirus and an alarming 44% positivity rate for the surrounding county, the local health director Friday ordered bars to stop serving alcohol at 9 p.m. and close by 10 p.m.

Iowa’s governor has ordered all bars shut down around The University of Iowa and Iowa State, while the mayor of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, did the same in the hometown of the state’s flagship university

“What we’re seeing in our violations is they’re coming late at night,” said Stephanie Browning, head of the health department for Columbia, Missouri. “Big groups gathering. They’re not wearing their masks, they’re not social distancing.”

In Utah, the city council in Provo overrode a mayoral veto to pass a mask mandate, which includes a $500 fine for organizing large mask-less gatherings, days before students return to Brigham Young University from around the country.

But the council was nevertheless worried that college students sharing dorms, bathrooms and showers could become “super-spreaders” and bring the virus off campus, council chair George Handley said.

“We’re already seeing what’s happened across the country at other universities,” he said.

But a recent warehouse party organized by a BYU student’s promotional company called Young/Dumb also raised concern when pictures of hundreds of revelers without masks surfaced online.

BYU, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has its own rules requiring masks on campus. Requirements for indoor public spaces in town will help people stay healthy and businesses stay open, Handley said.

“This is actually about preserving our way of life, it’s not about destroying it — contrary to what some people say,” Handley said.

The outbreaks since students began returning to campus in the past few weeks have heightened tensions between colleges and their towns and led to recriminations between local politicians and university officials.

Meanwhile, California announced a four-tiered, color-coded plan Friday for gradually reopening businesses after abandoning a reopening attempt earlier this summer. It requires counties to meet certain benchmarks showing progress in controlling the virus.

In Arizona, another deadly hot spot this summer, a drop in transmission numbers allowed the Phoenix and Tucson areas to reopen gyms and some bars.

The U.S. has recorded over 180,000 deaths from the coronavirus and 5.9 million confirmed infections. Worldwide, the death toll is put at more than 830,000, with at least 24.5 million cases.

Drugmaker Gilead Sciences said Friday that U.S. regulators are now allowing use of experimental antiviral drug remdesivir for all patients hospitalized with COVID-19.

It said the Food and Drug Administration has expanded its emergency use authorization, which lets doctors administer the IV drug during the pandemic. Until now, that was limited to patients with severe COVID-19.

Remdesivir previously was shown to shorten treatment by about four days for hospitalized patients with severe disease, compared with those getting standard supportive care.

Surging infection numbers around the U.S. have been blamed in part on young people ignoring mask and social distancing requirements.

In Iowa’s Story County, home to Iowa State, 74% of new cases over the past seven days were among people ages 19 to 24, Gov. Kim Reynolds said Thursday. In the same time period, 69% of new cases in Johnson County, the home of the University of Iowa, were in that age group.

“It is increasing the virus activity in the community, and it’s spilling over to other segments of the population,” Reynolds said.

Fueled in part by clusters where college students are returning to classes, Kansas has had its highest seven-day increase in coronavirus cases.

Gov. Laura Kelly said outbreaks on college campuses and fraternities and sororities are at least a factor in the surge.

“We cannot continue to go down this path,” she told reporters Friday.

The number of positive coronavirus cases continues to climb at the University of Kansas, with 10% of fraternity and sorority members infected. The school said Friday in a news release that it has conducted 21,719 tests and 474 have been positive, for a positive rate of 2.18%. But among sororities and fraternities, there have been 270 positives among 2,698 members tested. Earlier this week, the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department issued an order placing nine chapter houses under quarantine.

At Kansas State University, four new outbreaks are associated with sororities on campus, according to the Riley County Health Department. All residents of any Greek house at K-State where an outbreak has been declared should quarantine for 14 days.

The University of Alabama has recorded over 1,000 cases on campus since the fall semester began last week. In closing the town’s bars Monday for the next two weeks, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox said that an unchecked spread of the virus threatens both the health care system and the local economy if students have to be sent home for the semester for remote learning.

Three of North Carolina’s largest public universities have abruptly halted in-person undergraduate instruction and directed students to move out of the dorms after hundreds tested positive following their return to campus. More than 800 have been infected at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and over 670 at North Carolina State.

Leaders at UNC-Chapel Hill, which has shifted to online classes, wrote an open letter Thursday to the mayor outlining steps the university is taking to curb off-campus parties.

“We recognize the very real problems with the behaviors of some of our fraternities and sororities,” the letter said.

Oyeronke Popoola, a 17-year-old freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill who moved out of her dorm, said that administrators, not students, deserve most of the blame for the virus-related problems after they ushered students back to campus.

“They should’ve put everything online from the beginning, but they wanted the money,” she said. And she said fraternities and sororities weren’t the only ones at fault among the students: “I feel like Greek life gets a lot of blame, which is understandable, but there are other students who were meeting without masks.”

The problems did not change the thinking of other schools around the country.

The University of Virginia announced Friday that it is moving ahead with plans to offer in-person instruction for the fall semester, after delaying the start of classes for two weeks to assess the spread of COVID-19.

“We know some will be delighted to hear this news and others will be disappointed,” a university statement said. “To be frank, it was a very difficult decision, made in the face of much uncertainty, and with full awareness that future events may force us to change course.”