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Indiana University officials took the extraordinary step on Thursday of recommending that all Greek houses on its Bloomington campus be closed, citing an “increasingly alarming” rate of positive results during mitigation testing for COVID-19.

It’s not clear, however, if the sororities and fraternities on campus will comply. The Greek houses are owned and operated by outside landlords or parent organizations, meaning the university doesn’t actually have the authority to close them.

Instead, school officials are encouraging students in these houses to re-evaluate their living situations. The announcement was met with immediate pushback by governing organizations.

In a statement released Thursday, the IU Interfraternity Council, which represents 27 chapters on campus, 20 of which have housing, called the university’s recommendations “irrational and dangerous” and said officials are “telling a story of half-truths to demonize the Greek community.”

The university said it expects the council organizations to work directly with students and their families to make new living arrangements for their members, said Provost Lauren Robel.

“I think that the corporations and the national directors need to step up and think about how they are going to help the students and their families move to other settings,” Robel said, “or really figure out how they’re going to make their houses significantly safer.”

But the Interfraternity Council said it’s IU that’s putting the students in an unsafe situation.

“The reality is IFC fraternities have done everything asked of them by the university and Monroe County Health Department,” the group’s statement reads. “Indiana University recommendations have now put the entire Bloomington community at risk as thousands of kids have been directed to find new housing.”

The university’s COVID-19 website shows mitigation testing positivity rates well over 50% in some houses, and IU spokesman Chuck Carney said in a Thursday news conference that some of those rates are now as high as 87%.

At Purdue University:Quarantine for students in 23 Greek houses, cooperatives, dorms in second week of classes

In a written statement, the North American Interfraternity Conference said: “Facilities should remain open with quarantine protocols in place to isolate members within chapter houses to minimize further coronavirus exposure. 

Universities struggle to contain outbreaks

Thursday’s developments at IU come a day after Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert said sending infected students home from their college campus after an outbreak is “the worst thing you could do.” 

“Keep them at the university in a place that’s sequestered enough from the other students,” Fauci said in a Wednesday appearance on Today, “but don’t have them go home because they could be spreading it in their home state.”

Dr. Cole Beeler, director of symptomatic testing and assistant professor of infectious diseases at the IU School of Medicine, said Fauci’s statement was likely made under the assumption that a university would be able to safely perform quarantine and isolation where those students are living.

That’s not the case with IU’s Greek houses, he said. 

“What we need … is for complete physical separation from those who are not only infected, but have been exposed to someone who is infected with no contacts with other people that could potentially become infected from them,” Beeler said. 

“Going home is a viable option, to me, because there is a level of control and familiarity for students while they are at home.”

What is a positivity rate?

There are 2,600 students in 42 communal living houses at IU.

That includes 2,525 students in 40 fraternity and sorority houses and 75 students in Evans Scholars and Christian Student Fellowship houses.

One of the key factors for IU officials in making the closure recommendation was the jump in positivity rates during a new round of COVID testing, which can indicate how fast and where the virus is spreading. A positivity rate refers to the percentage of people who test positive for the virus compared to the number of people who have been tested.

IU reported an 8.1% positivity rate among students living in fraternity and sorority housing on the Bloomington campus during its first round of mitigation testing, according to a Monday update to its testing dashboard. In comparison, residence halls had a 1.63% positivity rate.

However, testing of students living in Greek housing this Monday shows the positivity rate had jumped above 20%, Dr. Aaron Carroll, director of mitigation testing and a professor with the IU School of Medicine, said in Thursday’s news conference.

It was not immediately clear how many students were tested on Monday or which houses they live in.

The university cited the nature of communal living, which puts students in close proximity to one another, using shared bathrooms and a number of other common living, sleeping and dining spaces as reasons for the continued spread. 

“Given the Greek housing structure, avoiding close contact with residents who may carry the virus is virtually impossible,” the university tweeted. “Dorms are not seeing the level of positivity rates that are being found in Greek houses.”

An ‘untenable’ situation

However, Carroll said the situation is “becoming untenable,” as current plans within many fraternities and sororities still rely on housing those who need to be isolated or quarantined in the same facilities as other students.

That’s not the case for students in residence halls, who can be moved from their assigned locations to the university’s designated isolation dorm as they recover.

“This is asymptomatic — this is not people who are otherwise sick, this is just the background prevalence,” Carroll said. “And at rates that high, the number of close contacts in some of these houses gets so high that almost the entire house, if not the entire house, has to be placed in quarantine.”

On Wednesday, officials said 30 of the university’s 40 Greek houses were under quarantine due to COVID-19, up from 14 on Monday and eight last week.

Robel said the university does not have the capacity in its residence halls to take on students who were living in the Greek houses. She said the university is willing to work with students and their respective housing corporations to find alternatives.

“Believe it or not, it’s really just the everyday things that we do that we don’t think about. You put your toothbrush down on the sink and you have COVID or you didn’t find out until the next day. Well, that place where you put your toothbrush down, potentially now it has viral particles that could infect somebody.”

Dr. Esteban Ramirez, Protect Purdue Health Center

Purdue seeks spikes in COVID cases

IU Bloomington is not the only university in the state seeing cases spike among congregate living situations. Officials at Purdue University confirmed Wednesday that nearly two dozen fraternities, sororities, cooperatives and other student housing were under some form of quarantine. Of 162 cases confirmed on the campus since Aug. 1, 57% were in congregate housing.

Dr. Esteban Ramirez, chief medical officer for the Protect Purdue Health Center, said the source of the spread, at least so far, hasn’t been from students partying.

“Believe it or not, it’s really just the everyday things that we do that we don’t think about,” Ramirez said. “You put your toothbrush down on the sink and you have COVID or you didn’t find out until the next day. Well, that place where you put your toothbrush down, potentially now it has viral particles that could infect somebody.”

‘No evidence’ of transmission in class

Officials’ suggestion that these houses close is not a signal that the university plans to switch to online-only instruction, Provost Robel said.

“We’re seeing no evidence of transmission of COVID in any classroom setting,” she said. “The housed Greek student population on the campus is a very small percentage of our overall population, and the reason we’re doing such intensive testing on our campus is to be able to find the places where we are having outbreaks and contain them.”

The 2,525 students living in Greek houses represent just over 6% of the estimated 42,000 students on the Bloomington campus.

If the owners of the houses choose not to close, there’s not much the university can do, Robel conceded.

“We don’t have the power to shut them down ourselves,” she said. “There is a scenario under which they could be closed by the public health authorities.”

Carroll said even if the houses are closed and later deemed safe by the house corporation or headquarters, he likely wouldn’t recommend students return to these living situations.

“I think unless we saw a real significant change in the plan or strategy,” Carroll said, “it’s difficult to understand how this would be better a second time around.”

IndyStar Pulliam Fellow Lydia Gerike and Lafayette Journal & Courier editor Dave Bangert contributed.

Call IndyStar reporter Holly Hays at 317-444-6156. Follow her on Twitter: @hollyvhays.

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