201015ind Birx

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House's coronavirus response coordinator, speaks to the press during her visit to the University of Rhode Island's Kingston campus on Oct. 8.

KINGSTON, R.I. — Students in fraternities and sororities at the University of Rhode Island are sheltering in place, a decision the school made a day after Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, praised URI for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The 14-day order began Oct. 9 and extends to Oct. 24.

It means the students in Greek housing can’t leave their homes, whether on or off campus, except for medical-related or essential trips. The students are attending virtual classes, URI said.

The university said in a statement that it took the step based on rising coronavirus cases in the Greek community.

Test results as of Friday showed the COVID positivity rate among Greek housing at 11.17%, well above the on-campus rate of 0.65% for students in residence halls and 3.83% for off-campus students.

Off-campus Greek community students have a positivity rate of 9.06%, the school said, while the non-Greek off-campus positivity rate is 0.76%.  

URI said there is no evidence the virus transmission is occurring in classrooms and labs.

“This difficult decision is being made to help stop the spread of the virus. We know that many members of the Greek community have followed the guidelines on face coverings and physical distancing,” URI said.

Chapters that have had no incidents of the virus can apply for an exception to the shelter-in-place, and the process will include a chapter assessment.

URI said it would work with the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Association and individual chapter leaders to hold members accountable if they don’t follow safety measures and mandates, such as mask wearing and social distancing. Sanctions for students could include suspension or dismissal from the university, URI said.

Fraternity and sorority recruitment events such as bid day are allowed to continue on virtual platforms only.

There have also been reports from student-run media about large gatherings taking place outside of dorm buildings and at the Kingston Emporium. Purported video of such gatherings has also made its way onto local newscasts, and URI President David M. Dooley addressed the possibility of a curfew during the Oct. 8 visit by Birx.

“The decision on whether we impose a curfew or not will be in part based on the outcome of the asymptomatic spread testing that we’re now doing, an analysis of what the threats might be to our campus community and to our off-campus student community,” Dooley said. “One of the things we want to do is complete the testing regimen we’re now in.”

URI is in the midst of a two-week mandatory testing period for all students, with about 1,600 tested per day, Dooley said. “We’re going to test faculty and staff as well.”

Dooley said the testing would help URI manage outbreaks on campus “in the most strategic way possible.”

Birx visited URI as well as UConn on Oct. 8 as part of a nationwide tour of colleges to evaluate their response to COVID-19.

During her three-hour visit to the Kingston campus, Birx met with Gov. Gina Raimondo and Rhode Island Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, Dooley, URI’s senior leadership team and COVID-19 Task Force leaders. She also toured the university’s COVID-19 testing site at the Memorial Union.

“The message I wanted to carry across to the 23 universities and the 32 or so states that we’ve visited is that universities that spent their spring and summer really planning and were willing to have a flexible plan that was comprehensive and collaborative has been very critical,” said Birx, speaking at a late afternoon press conference on the common outside the Fascitelli Center for Advanced Engineering.

Birx also met with several professors and students who are conducting research on COVID-19 related projects, including Associate Professor Kunal Mankodiya and students working on a “smart mask” that can detect coronavirus symptoms, and Professor Angela Slitt, who is exploring a saliva test for the virus.

Birx also said that as winter approaches, more cases are occurring in small, private gatherings where asymptomatic individuals, not knowing they are infected, spread the virus to friends and family.

“As workplaces, public areas, retail groups have really created safe spaces, where we’re seeing the spread occur now is in private spaces where we feel comfortable, where we take off our masks, and invite in our neighbors and friends,” Birx said. “We really want to understand where that’s happening, stopping it before it becomes broad based and really proactively giving messages to communities about how to safely gather, how to be socially engaged, but physically distanced and really protecting those with vulnerabilities.”

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