This week’s outbreak at several University of Washington fraternities has hinted at just how hard it’s going to be to keep COVID-19 from spreading when college students return to campus this fall — especially since those students are eager to be around other young people after months of lockdowns and living at home.

As of Friday, 117 students living in 15 fraternity houses this summer have reported testing positive for the virus. The university has confirmed 89 of those cases, along with an additional four students who visited fraternities but didn’t live in them. The numbers are likely to tick upward, since about 1,000 have been tested, including other students who visited the fraternities but didn’t live there.

Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer with Public Health – Seattle & King County, called the outbreak “very concerning” and said he is worried young adults will spread the disease to more vulnerable populations.

The UW’s outbreak underscored the risks of bringing students back to school if they don’t stick to the health department’s rules regarding physical distancing and mask-wearing. With just months left before the start of the fall semester, colleges and universities across the state are fine-tuning plans for how to keep students safe this autumn, both through physical changes to campus and using carefully worded messages to help them understand why COVID-19 is so dangerous.

“It does make us worry about what might happen this fall,” Duchin said. “We understand there was a lot of socializing, a lot of risk-taking, not a lot of mask-wearing going on. … When you do that and you don’t take precautions, you get a lot of COVID.”

Tara Lee, a spokesperson for Gov. Jay Inslee, said the governor’s office would continue to assess “what is safe and what is feasible” when it comes to the potential reopening of colleges and universities.

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UW President Ana Mari Cauce has said the university is trying to develop some kind of honor code that will encourage students to say something when a fellow student fails to follow health recommendations.

Other universities are also struggling with how to relay the right message to their students. Washington State University, which is on the semester system and will be one of the earliest universities in the state to begin fall term classes on Aug. 24, warned students this week that they must follow health guidelines when they come back to campus. Students who don’t “should consider other arrangements for your education in the fall,” the message said.

Visitors to the University of Washington campus walk past Denny Hall on Thursday. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Visitors to the University of Washington campus walk past Denny Hall on Thursday. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

“They do crave social interaction, but there’s a countervailing force — students want to do the right thing,” said Phil Weiler, WSU’s vice president for marketing and communications.

In the UW’s cases, most of the students are asymptomatic, and none have gotten seriously ill, said Geoffrey Gottlieb, interim chair of the UW Advisory Committee on Communicable Diseases and an attending physician with UW Medicine.

On the upside, the university will “end up learning a lot about this from the perspective of density of housing, and social gatherings, and face-covering adherence,” he said. “I think the lessons for the dorms, the Greek system, is that we’re really going to have to make a strong effort to keep people safe.”

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Health experts believe the virus took root and spread fast on Greek Row because it is relatively dense housing, with close social networks in between the houses, Gottlieb said. “Hopefully in the coming days and weeks, we’ll get a better handle on exactly what led to this … and where we can intervene in the future,” he said.

University of Washington police have observed a number of gatherings of 10 to 15 people at fraternity houses this past month, but because members of the same household are allowed together under Inslee’s stay-at-home orders, people living in the same fraternity would be within the bounds of that order, said UW spokesperson Michelle Ma in an email.

Greek Row is off campus, and policed by the Seattle Police Department. But it’s not clear how, or if, police would ever be involved in breaking up a fraternity party. “A house party is not necessarily a violation of anything,” Ma said. “For SPD to act, it would need to be creating a disturbance, such as noise violations after a certain hour.”

College students are especially difficult to rein in because 18- to 24-year-olds are in a phase of life where they’re intensively exploring and defining social-emotional connections with others, said Kira Mauseth, a clinical psychologist and senior instructor at Seattle University. And after living through months of lockdowns and physical distancing, “they’re desperate for connection,” she said.

What’s more, the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is involved in complex decision-making and planning, isn’t fully developed until we reach our mid-20s, Mauseth said. College-age adults tend to be risk-takers, not fully recognizing danger. And they also maintain a belief — as people of any age often do — that the illness will happen to other people, not to them, she said.

A person reads on the Quad at the University of Washington on Thursday. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
A person reads on the Quad at the University of Washington on Thursday. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
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Similar to the UW, WSU’s sororities and fraternities are off-campus and privately owned and operated, “which means the university is not able to dictate what happens inside of houses,” said Jill Creighton, WSU associate vice president and dean of students. An officer from the Pullman Police Department is responsible for that part of campus and will work with students living in the area to make sure they comply with Whitman County health directives. As of Friday, the southeastern Washington county was in Phase 3.

The Pullman campus has also cut the number of students who can live in university-owned residence halls, to improve physical distancing. Most double rooms will be converted to singles, and some triples will be converted to doubles. The number of students housed on-campus will drop from 6,200 to a little less than 4,000, and some students who applied for housing will get a letter telling them the university doesn’t have enough capacity, and that they will need to find another place to live.

The staff met with landlords in the Pullman area this week and “the sense was that there is capacity out in the community,” Weiler, the WSU vice president, said.

Most universities and colleges in the state plan to teach a hybrid of in-person and online classes this fall to maximize physical distancing and space in the classroom. Eastern Washington University, however, has decided to go all-online for fall quarter.

Seattle University is starting fall semester two weeks early, ending the semester just before Thanksgiving and then not convening again until January. And after teaching in-person until Thanksgiving, WSU will conduct the last weeks of the semester online, so students won’t have to go back to Pullman or any of the other four campuses until after January.