Indiana virus caution urged as IU seeks fraternity closures

Indiana health officials are warning residents to take coronavirus precautions seriously over the Labor Day weekend, even as new statewide COVID-19 risk ratings show most counties have minimal or moderate virus spread.

Indiana University officials have asked all 40 fraternity and sorority houses on its Bloomington campus to shut down because of high rates of coronavirus infections, but say they have no authority to force them to close.

Labor Day warning

State health officials are urging people to wear masks and avoid crowds during the Labor Day weekend after large gatherings around the Fourth of July contributed to an increase in coronavirus cases during July and August.

Contact tracers have linked more than 3,300 COVID-19 cases to large gatherings and to places such as bars, gyms, hair salons, restaurants and churches, said Dr. Kristina Box, the state health commissioner. One bar has been connected to 34 cases in two weeks.

Box emphasized that the coronavirus can spread quickly in crowded events if people don’t wear masks and maintain sufficient distance.

“We saw a surge in patients after Memorial Day and our July Fourth gatherings,” Box said. “I don’t want to see that surge after Labor Day.”

Indiana’s seven-day average of new coronavirus infections dropped to about 350 a day in late June but has generally topped 900 since early August. Hospitalizations have gone up by about 50% in the state during that time.

State health officials on Thursday reported seven more coronavirus-related deaths, taking the state’s death toll to 3,332, including confirmed and presumed coronavirus cases, since Indiana’s first COVID-19 fatality was reported in mid-March.

IU actions

Testing at some Indiana University fraternity and sorority houses found infection rates above 50%, according to a statement released by the school, but university officials said Thursday that they were unaware of any infected students who needed hospitalization. The shared bathrooms and living spaces in those houses make preventing virus spread difficult.

The county health department has already ordered 30 of the 40 houses to quarantine due to the coronavirus. University officials said they can’t order the houses to close because they’re owned by the fraternity and sorority organizations, but they urged everyone living in them to move out.

“We do not consider, based on our best public health advice, these houses to be safe living environments at this point,” campus Provost Lauren Robel said.

The North American Interfraternity Conference, an organization representing college fraternities, said the IU houses were following public health guidelines.

“Facilities should remain open with quarantine protocols in place to isolate members within chapter houses to minimize further coronavirus exposure,” the group said in a statement. “We believe it is wrong to move students from their current quarantined locations and risk spreading infection to different places in the community.”

About 2,600 students live in the houses or other forms of communal housing. Testing has not found significant coronavirus spread among students living in residence halls or linked to classrooms on the 42,000-student campus, officials said.

Statewide ratings

The new county-by-county map available on the Indiana State Department of Health’s website Thursday gave a red rating of high coronavirus spread to only Martin County in rural southwestern Indiana. Seven other counties, including South Bend’s St. Joseph County, Muncie’s Delaware County and Terre Haute’s Vigo County, have orange ratings of moderate to high spread.

The remaining 88 counties received yellow or blue ratings based on the number of new cases per 100,000 residents and the percentage of tests confirming COVID-19 infections. The map is meant as a guide for school leaders on whether to keep students in classrooms, but some local school administrators have been reluctant to embrace the new system.

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