An increase in positive tests in Monroe County has paralleled the return of Indiana University students to Bloomington. IU Health Dr. Tom Hrisomalos is a specialist in infectious diseases and he sees it in the data.
“Certainly we’ve seen an increase in cases,” he said. “It seems to correlate with some of the students coming back in town and if you look at Monroe County’s numbers what is it, about 60 percent of our cases are in individuals younger than 29, in contrast to some of our surrounding counties. So I think that certainly plays a role.”
He said it’s not the only issue, with people perhaps letting their guard down for family and friend gatherings another one.
Still, the county has seen a strong upswing in the seven-day positivity rate since IU students started returning. But despite what some may think, that measure is lower among most classifications of IU students than it is in the general public. Dr. Aaron Carroll of IU explained that while people with symptoms make up a large part of the testing base around the state, IU has a different testing target. The university is testing between 10,000 and 15,000 students a week and a vast majority of them have no COVID-19 symptoms.
Caroll says most sectors of IU students are showing low rates. For example, students living in dorms in Bloomington are showing about a 3 percent positivity rate. Rates at some regional campuses are close to zero. But there is one group that’s returning huge positivity rates and grabbing a lot of attention.
“The Greek population during week two, I think it was at 25 percent, which is horrifyingly high,” Carroll said. “But they’re a very high risk population.”
That’s the fraternities and sororities. Maggie Mulligan is a sophomore at IU who is quarantined to her sorority house, Gamma Phi Beta. She said it’s extremely difficult for fraternities or sororities to stay safe because of the realities of the living conditions in the Greek system.
“It’s extremely unrealistic, but it’s not that we’re just a social group, the issue is that we’re living in a house together where we share kitchens and bathrooms and living rooms together and we don’t really have a choice but to share these facilities together,” she said. “You share all the same utilities, you share the same rooms, even though we’re living separately, sleeping separately, we have to leave our rooms eventually. We can’t just stay in our own rooms. It’s quite frankly very challenging to social distance and to wear these masks and keep up with studies.”
She says she was excited in July and early August by the prospect of coming from her out-of-state home back to her chosen home of Bloomington. But now she’s largely confined to a room she describes as “almost the size of a closet.”
“When we were invited back, I jumped at the opportunity to come back and I felt safe knowing the university would keep me in the know, test me regularly, and they told me I would be safe in my sorority house as long as we followed these guidelines,” she said. “And two weeks in, it’s kind of blown up in my face a little bit.”
She’s upset with IU and says the university did not help the Greek students as much as it could have.
“It was like it was on the sororities shoulders to figure it out…,” she said.
IU’s Carroll has been a leader in the university’s response. He sees things differently.
“I think we’ve been very consistent,” he said. “The restart committee determined very early that we could not see a way that the fraternities and sororities could be safe, for the reasons we’ve articulated. No blame. No anger. It’s just impossible to imagine how they can do communal living the way they do and keep it safe. But fraternities and sororities are off campus housing and they wanted to open.
He notes a long list of recommendations given to the fraternities and sororities was unlikely to work.
“I just laid out a list of recommendations that are pretty much impossible to do and have a fraternity or sorority house which is why we said, we don’t think this can be safe,” he said. “But fraternities and sororities moved ahead and came up with plans they thought would be adequate.
Now more than three-fourths of the Greek housing facilities have been quarantined. He says the number of fraternity and sorority members who have tested positive would overwhelm the university’s isolation dorm which houses positive students who have housing options with the university.
“This is not about blame, it’s not about pointing a finger, it’s about how the houses are set up. It’s hard to imagine how they could meet the criteria for which it was safe,” Carroll said. “We’re left with a series of unfortunately bad choices. It’s not as if there’s a magic button we can push that can fix this. We have tried to find other facilities where we could potentially house that many people in isolation, but it’s incredibly difficult. And we’re still finding that infections are still spreading in the houses even when we know all of this because it’s incredibly hard.”
Students like Maggie Mulligan know about bad options.
“it just felt like we’ve come to the point of no return where we have to stay in this house and get infected or to go home and risk infecting family members or spend more money and get off-campus housing,” she said.
She says despite photos of students not being safe, such as those on pontoon boats at Lake Monroe on Labor Day weekend, IU students she knows are taking the pandemic seriously.
“I cannot speak for the population of students who have decided to turned their backs on the virus and have decided to forego social distancing and wearing masks. What I can tell you is about the population of students who are hiding terrified in their rooms and they are not leaving their houses and they are not even thinking about going within six feet of anyone,” she said.
Carroll said it’s difficult to control students violating basic rules on partying by punishing them.
“We’re not a police state, and so it’s very hard, as much as people think that we can take significant action we try very hard to work with students and not go nuclear,” he said. He added that he thinks the university should be very harsh on students who violate the terms of quarantine or isolation.
Dr. Hrisomalos, the epidemiology expert, praises IU for its efforts to control COVID-19 among students but he calls the virus a very tough adversary. As for what happens next, he said it’s important that all people, not just students, continue to take precautions – wash your hands, wear a mask, stay six feet apart from others and get an influenza vaccine before flu season hits.