Seven of the eight COVID-19 clusters identified at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville have been sorority houses, and you have to know how Greek houses are set up to understand why.
Dr. Spencer Gregg, director of the Student Health Center, said many students love the communal living sorority houses provide, but that same feature makes them more likely to facilitate the spread of infectious illnesses like COVID-19. Sorority houses are set up like family homes, with shared living and dining spaces, as well as smaller, shared bathrooms, he said.
That means that when one sorority house member tests positive for COVID-19, everyone in the house is considered a close contact and must self-isolate.
“A residence hall is less like a house and more like an apartment building, so that’s why you tend to see clusters originating from houses more than you do facilities,” Gregg said during a livestream Friday.
The university has reported eight clusters of COVID-19 since Aug. 18. Seven have been at sorority houses located in Sorority Village at the west end of campus and one was tied to an off-campus party. There are 369 active COVID-19 cases at UT Knoxville, and 1,647 people in isolation as of Friday.
“It has to do with that close, communal-style living, which is really attractive for living there,” said Chancellor Donde Plowman. “It’s also attractive for the virus.”
Why are fraternities and sororities susceptible to COVID clusters?
Most of the clusters in sorority houses are not coming from parties or gatherings, but from the communal nature of their living spaces, Gregg said. A cluster is defined as least five connected cases or 20 people in self-isolation stemming from one event or location.
Because those living in Greek housing are sharing living rooms, dining rooms, kitchens and smaller bathrooms, the virus spreads more easily, Gregg said.
While some Greek organizations have been placed on interim suspension for breaking COVID-19 gathering rules, none of the suspended organizations have been identified as clusters.
How did Greek housing prepare for the fall semester?
Each sorority and fraternity submitted a plan to the university for operating during the pandemic. Those plans are being reviewed and adjusted.
“We’re continuing to work with the chapters to perfect, to improve how we handle quarantining,” Plowman said at Wednesday’s Knox County Board of Health meeting.
New plans will allow someone who tests positive to move out of the sorority or fraternity house, or allow them to safely stay in the house if they want, Plowman said.
Have UT dorms had large numbers of COVID-19 cases?
Dorms at UT have not been the location of any clusters so far this semester. While students in dorms have tested positive for COVID-19, those situations are not classified as clusters because they do not stem from one single location or event.
Gregg compared dorms to a business space, while Greek housing is more like a house.
While those in Greek housing share much of the living space, those living in dorms will “occupy a small space,” while sometimes sharing a common bathroom. Those living in dorms also have larger living spaces, like dorm lobbies, which are being less frequently used during the pandemic.
Have other events, like protests or gatherings, caused clusters?
Last Saturday, Vols athletes led a large anti-racism demonstration on UT Knoxville’s campus where the vast majority of participants wore masks. To date, no clusters have been reported from that gathering.
The first cluster, announced right before the first day of classes, originated from an off-campus party thrown on Laurel Avenue. Since then, every cluster reported has been at a sorority house located in the village.
“Events, whether formal or informal, that have operated with proper health and safety precautions that include use of masks and social distancing do not seem to be a source of cases,” UT spokesperson Owen Driskill said. “As noted over the last few weeks, cases have occurred related to gatherings without protective measures.”
Which sororities have COVID clusters?
The first cluster at a sorority was at Zeta Tau Alpha, which was classified as a cluster because two residents tested positive for COVID-19.
In the days after that cluster was announced, Delta Delta Delta, Alpha Delta Pi, Phi Mu, Sigma Kappa, Alpha Chi Omega and Alpha Omicron Pi were also announced as clusters.
Indiana University closes all Greek housing
Nationally, Greek housing has been in the spotlight.
On Thursday, Indiana University officials encouraged closing all Greek houses on its Bloomington campus, after “an increasingly alarming” rate of positive COVID-19 tests.
Based on that rate of positivity — which in some houses is over 50%, according to the university — officials and public health experts “believe Greek houses are not safe given the pandemic conditions and the current spread of COVID-19.”
Earlier this semester, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill became the first major college to move classes online after opening in person. UNC has reported several clusters at Greek houses.