From Staff Reports
As UNC students are returning to campus this week, the Orange County Health Director is warning that the area “could quickly become a hot spot for new cases” of COVID-19.
In a letter sent to UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and other Carolina officials, county health chief Quintana Stewart urged the university to “at minimum begin the first five weeks of the semester with online instruction only” and to restrict on-campus housing to “at-risk students with no access to equitable educational resources and those with true housing needs.”
“At minimum the five-week start of online exclusively would allow the university, the Orange County Health Department and the UNC Healthcare system more time to monitor the spread of this virus and prepare for any unanticipated campus impact,” Stewart said. It would also give authorities additional time to see the impact of how flu season might affect the situation, she added.
Restricting housing options would allow for additional capacity for quarantine, if needed, Stewart pointed out in the letter.
The university was then urged to follow those recommendations in another letter to Guskiewicz sent by the mayors of Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough as well as the chair of the county commissioners. Their letter noted that the Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro public school systems have gone to remote learning until Oct. 26 and Jan. 4 respectively to protect students, teachers, staff and school families and “it is hard to resolve or feel comfortable with this contrast between the decision to bring university students back to campus and the local decisions we have made thus far” to fight the pandemic.
The local officials further asked the university to “amend the UNC Community Standards so that those standards of behavior” — wearing face masks and keeping socially distant, among other measures — “apply to UNC students off campus as well as on and establish and apply specific consequences for violating those community standards.”
Stewart noted in her message that she had received “a massive amount of emails from community members, UNC staff, faculty and students sharing their concern for fully reopening campus for the fall semester.”
That concern continued Wednesday when a number of students, campus workers and faculty gathered on campus for a “die-in” to protest the full reopening of the university. Several local residents also expressed concern at a recent Chapel Hill Town Council meeting about the return of thousands of students to the community.
A number of faculty members, reacting on Twitter, were particularly incensed that Guskiewicz had received the letter from Stewart on July 29 and in the week since hadn’t informed the campus community about the letter’s recommendations.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Orange County has recorded around 1,300 cases of COVID-19 and 45 deaths. Those numbers have stayed stable recently, but Stewart in her letter expressed concern that “in the last four weeks we’ve seen positive COVID clusters among UNC staff and athletic teams. We’ve experienced the increased activity and gathering on Franklin Street that resulted in clusters that visited a couple of local restaurant/bar establishments.”
The county has put in place a number of efforts to control the spread of the virus, but “I fear it will not be enough to contain the full campus community upon return for the fall semester,” Stewart wrote.