Public health officials are sounding the alarm about new COVID-19 cases spreading at off-campus get-togethers at two of Oregon’s largest universities, warning that residents in at least one Oregon community should stop attending all social gatherings immediately to slow spread.
State epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said Friday that officials have identified “outbreaks” linked to three Greek life parties, one other off-campus party and social gatherings involving three athletic teams at the University of Oregon or Oregon State University.
In all that’s 22 cases linked to UO and 13 cases to OSU, an official later confirmed.
Although the vast majority of classes at both universities are being taught online, some students have chosen to live on or near campus in Eugene and Corvallis. Classes began Wednesday at OSU while UO starts next week.
“What we’re seeing is individuals, as they return to college when they’ve been away, they want to celebrate, they want to see their friends,” Sidelinger said.
Sidelinger said the college cases encompass just some of the types of gatherings that are helping fuel a startling rise in Oregon’s coronavirus infections: 457 new cases were announced Friday. That’s an all-time high for Oregon since the governor announced the first case nearly seven months ago, and Oregon’s average daily case count is at its highest point in a month.
Nationally, colleges and universities have been struggling to tamp down on students who break social distancing rules. Officials say a fraternity party of more than 100 people with few masks and no physical distancing resulted in at least 11 coronavirus cases last month at the University of New Hampshire. At Ohio State University, administrators temporarily suspended more than 225 students for off-campus get-togethers before classes started last month.
Public health officials in Oregon offered mixed messages Friday about their level of concern from college cases. Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, did not explicitly discourage social gatherings but advised people to think about how to best do them safely.
But Jason Davis, a spokesman for Lane County Public Health, urged all residents of Lane County to refrain from social gatherings with anyone outside their households because of soaring cases in the area. That includes University of Oregon students.
“Until we can responsibly gather, I think the best course of action is, ‘Don’t do it,’” Davis said.
Both UO and OSU have set up online reporting forms where members of the public can report violations of the student code of conduct. The rules forbid groups of more than 10 from gathering socially on-campus or off, and they require students to follow state rules that mandate masks in indoor public spaces and when within six feet of others outdoors.
Davis said his department has identified seven outbreaks linked to University of Oregon students, college-aged students from other schools or people who are ages 18 to 28 but not enrolled in school who got together indoors and without masks.
The University of Oregon reports 37 students who live off-campus have tested positive this week — significantly more than the 22 that Sidelinger had referenced during a news conference with reporters Friday.
Davis said these young adults have been a major factor in driving up the county’s numbers to record levels. The county reported 46, 47 and 48 new cases on three separate days this week. The previous high was 38 new cases back in July. The county this week raised its COVID-19 alert level from “moderate” to “high.”
“These aren’t horrible people,” Davis said of the groups spreading the disease. “They are socializing in a way that was just fine last year. They want to do the same things that virtually every other college student has done.”
Davis said when public officials have interviewed individuals among this group of spreaders, they’ve been apologetic — often explaining that they thought they were only putting themselves or other young people at possible risk of acquiring the virus.
“They’re saying things like, ‘I don’t even know anybody in this community who’s over the age of 60,’” Davis said.
But Davis said they are ultimately transmitting the disease to older people or people who have underlying conditions. He gave the example of one get-together encompassing five people at an apartment.
One person who was carrying the virus spread it to another there. That person later spread it to another friend, who spread it to yet another friend, who works at a long-term care facility, Davis said. No cases have been identified among the residents of that facility yet, but the risk is there, Davis said.
Davis said Lane County’s surging cases have the potential to jeopardize the University of Oregon’s efforts to restart classes, the K-12 school system’s ability to resume in-person operations and the general population’s chances of returning to work.
“It could derail everything,” Davis said.
Benton County has not seen the same surge as Lane County. OSU spokesman Steve Clark took issue with Sidelinger’s characterization of the off-campus cases as “outbreaks.” Clark said one fraternity hosted an event that resulted in two infections, a number he doesn’t consider an outbreak.
He also said he knows of five cases recently spread among three athletic teams, but he doesn’t believe the virus was spread through social gatherings. Rather, some of the athletes lived together or they trained together.
“It’s not a result of social gatherings and recklessness,” Clark said.
Even so, he said the university considers every case serious and has enacted a long list of measures to slow the spread of the disease among the university community. In the case of the fraternity event, Clark said an investigation is underway.
“If there has been a violation of the university’s policy,” Clark said, “we will deal with that.”
— Aimee Green; firstname.lastname@example.org; @o_aimee
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