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Changes made on Duke's campus after coronavirus cases spread through eating together

Posted October 8, 2020 4:29 p.m. EDT
Updated October 9, 2020 7:05 a.m. EDT

— Duke University has had relatively low coronavirus numbers, but among students who have had the virus, contact tracers at Duke realized one main way it's spreading is through meals -- including dining outside.

"We were noticing, we're always looking for what are those points of exposure," said Laura Andrews, the associate dean of students at Duke. "One of the things that came up really early on was during meal times. It's really hard to eat with a mask on."

Cameron Wolfe, an associate professor of medicine in the infectious disease division at Duke, said dining together is "a place where you naturally relax and let your guard down" and that it "was not surprising" that the virus was being transmitted through students eating together.

Many think of sharing a meal outside with friends as one of the lower-risk activities, but Wolfe said there is a way to dine together safely.

He explained that what's important is not only the distance from other tables, but also the distance from the other chairs at your table.

"At the end of the day, the virology here is not complex. The virology is that, if I'm, whether I know it or not, capable of spreading a respiratory virus, you have to be close to me to get that, and I'm more likely to get that if one or both of us is not masked. That's always the case when we're eating food," he added.

Wolfe said he was not surprised to hear about the connection to meals because the same thing happened where he works.

"We learned actually at the hospital very early on, back in March and April and May, that was in fact our highest-risk time even there," he explained. "It was not that patients were getting staff sick. It was that staff were getting each other sick inadvertently."

He said that, if you're eating with people not in your household, you should still keep 6 feet of distance, and outside is better than inside.

"I do think you should still be conscious to say, 'Hey, I don't know if you're infectious, and you don't know if I'm infectious. So, let's think about that a little creatively. Let's add a little space in the situation. Then, let's enjoy a meal and have a good laugh together.’ That's absolutely necessary. Heck, we'd all drive ourselves crazy if we didn't try to find ways of doing that."

Wolfe said to consider the time you spend eating with someone. He explained that, if you're meeting someone outside for quick drink versus a three-course dinner, there was a different risk level.

Duke has made some changes to its physical landscape to stop the trend of students eating together. The university has bolted down tables and chairs so people can't pick them up and move them closer.

"If you walk around campus now, you will notice there are lots of signs around: Make sure you put your mask back on after eating, when eating make sure you do that in a socially distanced way," described Andrews.

The university also has a “C-Team” that walks around campus and helps remind students to do things like put their masks on after eating.

Andrews also said the university is also reminding students getting together to watch debates during the election season to do so safely.

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