Covid-19 Outbreak at UNC-Chapel Hill Causes University to Abandon In-Person Classes

The university is the first to fall to the novel coronavirus

Safety ambassadors checked for masks prior to students entering buildings at UNC-Chapel Hill. Photo: Ted Richardson/The Washington Post/Getty Images

For the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), allowing students back on campus did not go well. As The Daily Tar Heel, the university’s esteemed student newspaper, put it this morning, the school “has a clusterfuck on its hands.” By this afternoon, the university of more than 30,000 students had abandoned ship, officially canceling in-person classes.

Classes started just one week ago, and during that time four outbreaks — defined as five cases or more in a single setting — emerged at three dormitories and one fraternity house. The university’s Covid-19 dashboard reported 135 new cases and a 13.6% positive test rate for the week of August 10 to August 16, up from only 10 cases and a 2.6% positive rate the week before. UNC says it has initiated contact tracing for the clusters, and infected students have been moved into a dedicated dorm to isolate. According to one student’s account, however, sick students are not being monitored either for health or adherence to the safety guidelines.

Before the semester started, UNC was criticized for announcing that they wouldn’t be testing students when they returned to campus, opening up the dorms, and insisting some classes be held in person. The university even flaunted state regulations, allowing indoor gatherings of 25 people while the state of North Carolina capped the number at 10. Instead of implementing better safety procedures, the university asked students to sign a pledge that they would wear masks and follow social distancing guidelines. That went about as well as a sobriety pledge signed before prom night.

Reports of parties abounded, and complaints and 911 calls began to pour in from the surrounding town of Chapel Hill. This result should surprise no one, least of all university administrators. Students were moved in from around the country to high-density dorms, frat houses, and apartment complexes. Most of these teens and twentysomethings have been stuck at home for months and were finally allowed to see their friends again and return to semi-normal life. Of course they’re going to party. And if there’s anything we’ve learned from this pandemic, where there are parties, there will be cases.

Four days after the first two dormitory outbreaks on August 14, UNC announced Monday that all undergraduate classes will be remote starting Wednesday and offered students the option to move out of the dorms, becoming the first major university to change plans after the semester started. The only question now is, which school will be next?

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental

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