Update on COVID-19 outbreak in Greek system at University of Washington

UPDATE: October 15, 2020Public Health – Seattle & King County has learned of more COVID-19 cases associated with the UW Greek system outbreak. We identified an additional 28 cases linked to the outbreak retrospectively, based on membership lists recently provided by the fraternity and sorority organizations. These cases do not represent a fresh increase in transmission. As of Oct. 15, this outbreak includes 274 positive cases, involving 16 fraternities and sororities.

As of October 6, Public Health – Seattle & King County has confirmed more than 160 cases among 12 fraternity and sorority organizations associated with the off-campus Greek community at the Seattle campus of the University of Washington (UW). 

Public Health issued this letter today reiterating public health recommendations to fraternities and sororities with active cases. Public Health is also supplying the Greek organizations with additional guidance and resources to assist in containing the outbreak. 

Many fraternity and sorority organizations have communal housing in which house members utilize shared facilities and congregate in communal spaces. The rapid increase in cases from 2 in early September to more than 160 now shows that COVID-19 spreads readily in these shared housing settings.

The UW originally notified Public Health of two cases associated with one Greek house on Sept. 11. The UW reported that 1,256 fraternity and sorority members were tested upon moving into their houses the week of Sept. 21, with four positive cases identified. On Friday, Sept 26, Public Health became aware of 17 total cases among the Greek system at UW. One week later, on Friday, Oct. 2, that number had increased to 130 cases. Today, per UW reporting, that number has grown to 174 cases among 13 chapters.

Public Health has been working closely with the UW Administration, UW Environmental Health & Safety and the UW Greek organization leadership to coordinate response efforts. This includes working with individual house chapters and residents to provide guidance for isolation, quarantine and infection control at their houses.

The UW is also providing access to testing through the Husky Coronavirus Testing program on campus within walking distance of the Greek houses. The goal is to make it as easy as possible for students living in Greek houses or apartments nearby to get tested.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about the White House in the other Washington or a Greek house at the University of Washington, COVID-19 spreads effectively with close contact and crowding, especially when masks are not worn. Rapid testing, isolation of people with symptoms and a 14-day quarantine of exposed students are essential to containing the outbreak,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, Health Officer for Public Health- Seattle & King County.

“We don’t want to see this spread to the greater UW community or surrounding areas or threaten our ability to have in-person learning in the future. I encourage Greek life alums and fraternity and sorority advisory and house corporation board members to reach out to your chapter houses to encourage and support students in taking the necessary COVID-19 prevention and response actions for the good of both the house and community.”

On June 24, 2020, Governor Jay Inslee issued a Proclamation regarding higher education which, among other things, requires that students and personnel self-quarantine or isolate per local public health guidelines if they are confirmed to have COVID-19 or have been exposed to confirmed case.

Public Health response

Public Health’s guidance to support houses with cases includes recommendations to contain outbreaks such as reducing the density within housing.

An example from the guidance:

“If possible, keep COVID-19 positive residents in their own room, or ensure COVID-19 positive residents only share rooms with other COVID-19 positive residents. Cohort bathrooms, so all COVID-19 positive residents have at least one bathroom and shower space which they are not sharing with COVID-19 negative residents. Everyone should continue wearing a mask whenever they are outside their room. Distance at least six feet from one another in common spaces.”

Through case and contact investigation work, Public Health is providing information and resources for students to safely quarantine or isolate and to identify their close contacts whom they may have exposed while infectious. Public Health is also providing technical assistance to chapters without cases, so they can create stronger infection control plans.

Public Health’s disease control epidemiologists provided infection control toolkits to houses emphasizing the importance of always practicing physical distancing, wearing face coverings in indoor communal spaces (outside of individual rooms), and not gathering with more than five people outside their house. 

Preventing outbreaks in congregate settings moving forward

The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to the virus. Implementing layered interventions — even when there are no cases in a household — are important for preventing the spread of COVID-19:

  • Wear face coverings in all communal spaces outside of bedrooms in congregate living facilities
  • Wear face coverings when interacting with anyone in social settings
  • Socially distance at least six feet at all times
  • Practice frequent and diligent hand hygiene
  • Increase cleaning and disinfecting of high touch surfaces
  • Monitor symptoms and get tested at the first sign of COVID-like symptoms.

Originally posted October 6, 2020