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Behind the coronavirus outbreak on Greek Row at the University of Washington

caption: Cases have slowed to a trickle on the University of Washington's Greek Row now that vaccines are widely available.
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Cases have slowed to a trickle on the University of Washington's Greek Row now that vaccines are widely available.
KUOW Photo/Juan Chiquiza

Nick Baldini is a senior at the University of Washington. This past summer, there were no internships or jobs to speak of, so he decided to enroll in classes and stay at his fraternity house.

The summer quarter had just started when he found out that someone living in his house had Covid. So he went to get a test. It came back negative.

But, a couple of days later, he said, “I started, you know, having mild symptoms: just like a sore throat, and just like a little bit of a runny nose.”

So he got a second test. That one came back positive.

“It was just kind of this feeling of like I’m alone,” he said. “Just a lot of fear as well with just not knowing how things were going to go.”

A second, even larger coronavirus outbreak on the University of Washington’s Greek Row has onlookers worried that those cases could lead to infections in the broader community. And it’s raised questions about whether the school can control the spread of Covid. But students on Greek Row say the outbreaks aren’t happening for the reasons many people think. And they want public officials and the general public to understand that.

Right now, students are hearing they should stay six feet from everyone, including intimate partners. A Harvard epidemiologist says that's not realistic, and it would be easier to control the spread if the school gave the students more reasonable guidelines.

Once he knew he had Covid, Baldini left his room only to use the bathroom — that is, his fraternity’s Covid bathroom, for people who had tested positive.

Before Baldini got sick, he was in really good shape: he ran two to three miles most days.

Then the virus hit.

“I had a lot of fatigue,” Baldini said. “I had, you know, shortness of breath. I had headaches. I lost my sense of taste and smell. Walking just in my room was exhausting.”

People living in Baldini’s fraternity who didn’t have Covid left soup and other groceries outside his door and checked in regularly by phone to make sure he was doing okay.

Baldini was one of more than 150 students who got Covid this summer while living on Greek Row.

With testing, contact tracing, and quarantines, the university and King County Public Health managed to end the outbreak — and, for more than a month, there wasn’t a single case.

But, as students started to trickle back for the fall quarter, cases started appearing again, and, now, more than 200 of the 2,000 or so students living on Greek Row have Covid.

The outbreak is big enough that even Governor Jay Inslee is talking about it.

“When I was a college freshman, I remember staying up a lot of late nights, having bull sessions, and that’s really enjoyable — but those conclaves of five and six and seven college students at our fraternities right now, not wearing masks, within six feet, it’s just deadly right now,” Inslee said. “We have to ask for these students at the fraternities and sororities of University of Washington: please help out the state of Washington. Please help your parents.”

Baldini, the student who got sick, said talking about the outbreaks like that is hurtful.

“The stigma and the stereotype of people getting it on Greek Row is, ‘Oh, these people are partying,’” Baldini said. “It’s kind of like karma.” Baldini said stigma, coming from public officials like Inslee and also UW students outside Greek Row, made him feel even more isolated than the quarantine did.

“I felt like no one really had any sympathy for myself or, like, anyone else that had unfortunately tested positive for this virus,” he said.

Baldini said what Inslee and many others don’t understand is that it’s not just social gatherings driving outbreaks on Greek Row. It’s living in close quarters.

Erik Johnson is president of the UW’s Interfraternity Council.

He said, yes, contrary to policy, there have been some parties this fall.

But, a fraternity is like a nursing home, he said, or a cruise ship.

“There can be, you know, upwards of 70, 80 people in normal times living in a facility, combined with the fact that some chapters implement sleeping porches where there can be as many as 20 to 30 people living in one room with bunk beds,” Johnson said. “That just inherently is not conducive to keeping people safe.”

Both socializing and close quarters contributed to the spread of Covid on Greek Row this summer and fall. At the moment, 15 of the 45 houses on Greek Row have cases, and Johnson said some of those houses did have social events. But once someone brings the coronavirus into a fraternity or sorority house, it can be hard to limit the spread: the students share bathrooms and kitchens, and Johnson said about two thirds of the cases have been asymptomatic, which means that the virus can spread widely before anyone knows there's a problem.

Johnson said Greek Row is less crowded this year, with only about two thirds the normal number of students living there.

Some of those students are there because they have an in-person class. Others are better able to do their schoolwork when they’re with peers, or Greek Row is their best option for safe housing.

Johnson said most of them do understand the stakes and are doing their best to prevent the spread of Covid.

“People have at-risk family members, and they have at-risk members of the community, and some of them have jobs that they could lose if they can’t actually go into work,” Johnson said. “Right when the outbreak started here, my dad was diagnosed with cancer, and so it’s very, very real that members of our community could spread this, and somebody could die.”

The UW has been grappling with how to keep students safe, not just on Greek Row but throughout the university community.

Geoff Gottlieb is an infectious disease doctor at the university who helped write the school's Covid policies. He said the school is trying to protect students, faculty and staff by holding most classes online. Also, dorms are only half full this quarter, and the school has instituted a testing program.

The UW is asking the students on Greek Row to abide by strict guidelines.

“Outside of your bedroom and your sleeping roommates — you should consider that your household — and then everything else outside of that, people need to be masked,” Gottlieb said. “They need to be six feet apart.”

That would include the common areas of a fraternity or sorority house, including the living room and kitchen, he said.

Gottlieb said, even when students are on a date or with their long-term romantic partner, the university hopes they’ll mask up and stay six feet apart.

“Expecting students to just remain six feet apart from each other for months on end, is a fairly unrealistic and inhumane expectation,” said Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist at Harvard University.

Marcus said setting unrealistic expectations is not the best way to reduce transmission. She does research on HIV, and said that policies that focus on harm reduction rather than on complete abstinence — whether that’s from sex, in the case of HIV, or social contact, in the case of Covid — often work better.

But, while households in the Seattle area are hearing advice about how to form Covid pods, the students at the University of Washington are receiving no corollary guidance.

“The focus on preventing really crowded indoor parties is appropriate,” Marcus said. “The best way to do that is not to say ‘stay six feet apart from everyone at all times’; it’s to say, ‘We really need you to avoid these crowded indoor parties, and so here are some safer ways that you can socialize.’”

Marcus said Notre Dame, for example, set up a lawn with Adirondack chairs, fire pits and lights to try to create an alternative to hanging out indoors.

As for Nick Baldini, the student who had Covid, he felt mostly better after two weeks. He checked with Public Health and was told it was okay for him to leave his room.

“I am considered a recovered patient, but there still are long-term effects,” Baldini said. “I didn’t regain some of my taste until probably seven weeks after. I still don’t have hardly any smell.”

Baldini said he’s trying to make the best of it by trying new spices in his cooking, but he’s Italian by heritage and hopes he’ll someday be able to taste lasagna and chicken parmesan again.

Baldini is living with family in the Bay Area at the moment for personal reasons, but hopes to move back into his fraternity house this fall or winter. He said it’s easier for him to get his work done there, and, besides, he misses his brothers.

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