Off-campus parties to blame for spike in COVID-19 clusters, according to Duke University leaders

Posted February 22, 2021 11:34 p.m. EST
Updated February 22, 2021 11:54 p.m. EST

— Duke University leaders say off-campus college parties are to blame for the spike in COVID-19 clusters.

On Monday, the university reported a cluster of six cases after a birthday party at 810 Ninth Apartments in Durham. It’s the fourth cluster Duke has reported this academic year.

"Nobody likes to see these things, and we have been very specific and very direct with communicating with our students, who have been great partners in this, that maskless events ... they're not acceptable [and] they're not permitted," said Michael Schoenfeld, vice president of public affairs and government relations at Duke.

John Valerio, who works at the Harris Teeter near Duke, said hearing of clusters popping up worries him and his mother.

"She's too scared to go to work sometimes," he explained. "When I come to work, I make sure to sanitize. I carry hand sanitizer on me [and] a little sprayer."

On Sunday, WRAL News reported about a maskless gathering with up to 50 people in attendance at another off-campus location. Five students became ill with COVID-19 after a Feb. 8 birthday party at Bullhouse Apartments, and last month five cases were reported at the Berkshire Ninth Apartments near campus.

So far, there aren't any COVID-19 outbreaks because of the non-socially distanced celebration after University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill's men basketball team beat Duke on Feb. 6.

"Hosting an event is considered a flagrant violation of our COVID expectations," said Schoenfeld.

He added that the university has held the standard for having low numbers of positive cases and wants to keep it that way.

"We still have great confidence in our testing program, in our tracing program, in our mitigation strategies and most importantly, in the actions of our students, our faculty and our staff," said Schoenfeld.

Schoenfeld said that similar violations of large gatherings have led to students being suspended.

"We take these things seriously and will not hesitate to institute penalties when needed," he said.

Durham teacher Kiera Hinton said she wants student to realize there's no bubble around Duke or Durham.

"I hope they consider the surrounding area, and my community, they are now in when making these decisions," she said. "My biggest concern is just, I do have to go back to work starting next month [and] being backed up with vaccines, I would like the option to get vaccinated, but I don't know if that'll happen before I go back in person."

Schoenfeld said last week that Duke had 11 positive tests among 100,000 students.

"It's incumbent upon everybody to be very vigilant. There's some basic things that all of us need to observe, [including] continue to wear a mask, continue to avoid large gatherings and practice good hygiene," he said.

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