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In One week, Duke COVID Cases Approach Fall Semester Total

Duke University campus entrance sign
Gerry Broome
Duke University's online tracker shows a quadrupling of positive cases among students last week. Top administrators blame fraternities for the surge amid reports of recruitment activities and off-campus parties. This Jan. 28, 2019 file photo shows the entrance to the main Duke University campus in Durham, N.C.

Duke University saw nearly as many cases of the coronavirus last week as it did during the entire fall semester, according to data released Tuesday.

The vast majority of the 231 new cases reported from March 8 through Sunday occurred within the university's undergraduate student population, which accounts for only about 0.06% of North Carolina’s population of 10.5 million people, but whose cases account for nearly 1.9% of the total number reported statewide last week. A total of 241 cases were reported during the entire fall semester.

The spike at Duke comes as transmission is decreasing across the state and country, though health officials insist it is too early to fully reopen schools and businesses and lift mask mandates. Campus administrators announced over the weekend that a campus-wide stay-in-place order would remain in place until 9 a.m. on March 21, with nearly all in-person classes transitioning to remote instruction.

Duke plans to provide an update on the lockdown measures on Thursday.

Amid changes to the rush process and other restrictions, nine fraternities decided to sever ties to the university and form a group called the Durham Interfraternity Council. Cases have dramatically increased since the fraternities began recruitment. Top university officials have pinned the brunt of the blame on these organizations.

“This (stay-in-place) action is necessary to contain the rapidly escalating number of COVID cases among Duke undergraduates, which is principally driven by students attending recruitment parties for selective living groups,” the university told students.

Duke Chief Communications Officer Mike Schoenfeld says robust campus testing helped catch the outbreak. He says a "relatively small percentage" of the school's more than 6,000 undergraduates "attended unsanctioned fraternity events that were being held off-campus."

The 218 additional positive cases last week among students is more than quadruple the 53-student total that occurred during the first week of March. Over 550 students have contracted the virus since Jan. 3.

In response to the surge in cases, Duke announced over the weekend that it would refuse library entry to undergraduates. The school also has told students not to leave their dormitories or apartments unless it is for essential activities such as picking up food and mail, exercising outdoors in groups of three or fewer people, seeking medical care or participating in COVID-19 surveillance testing. Off-campus students living in the Durham area are not allowed to return to campus, except for pick-up food orders, medical care or a coronavirus test.

If conditions do not improve, top Duke administrators said over the weekend that the university may not be able to go forward with classes and graduation.

“Our ability to complete the semester, commencement for our seniors, and the health and safety of our community, including your fellow undergraduate students, is hanging in the balance,” the administrators wrote.

Schoenfeld says Duke will consider punishing students who've violated COVID-19 safety standards.

Associated Press
Cole del Charco is WUNC’s morning reporter. He’s worked for WUNC since 2019.
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