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Coronavirus outbreaks force mandatory quarantine at 23 MSU frats, sororities

Health officials have ordered a two-week quarantine of 23 Michigan State University fraternities and sororities  and seven large rental houses in East Lansing after finding evidence of COVID-19 exposure among students.

Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail, who signed the Monday order, said an outbreak of cases “is quickly becoming a crisis.” The mandatory quarantine comes just days after she recommended a voluntary one for all 38,000 students.

“We have cases or exposures in all of these homes, and they're out of control,”  said Vail.

Some 342 cases of the county’s 907 cases since Aug. 24 have been linked to MSU, but health officials didn’t say how many are linked to the quarantined homes.  Contract tracing has connected the cases to parties and a failure to wear masks or social distance. 

“We're never going to stop this” without compliance, Vail said. 

“We’ve quarantined residences before. They just haven’t been this large.”

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The order comes as coronavirus cases are spiking in colleges statewide, with nearly 1,400 cases as of Sept. 10, according to a report released Monday. More than half of those were connected to three schools — Grand Valley, Adrian College and Central Michigan University.

The MSU order takes effect at a critical time: the beginning of fall recruitment at fraternities and sororities, or rush week, when typically students crowd into Greek houses. This year, however, events were “fully virtual,” according to the MSU website. The mandatory quarantine makes it even more likely those events will stay “virtual.”

Under the order, residents of quarantined homes “must remain in their residence [through Sept. 28] unless they need medical care or necessities that cannot be delivered,” according to the health department.

Visitors are banned. Exterior doors must be marked with a “Notice of Mandatory Quarantine” sign. Residents must wear masks in common areas, submit to random compliance checks and maintain social distancing.

In her order, Vail wrote that one-third of all Ingham County’s cases since March have been reported in the past three weeks. According to the county dashboard, cases had jumped from 1,687 Aug. 24 to 2,594, an increase of more than 50 percent.

Over that time, 14 residents have died of the coronavirus, bringing the county’s total to 43, according to the state records.

In the past few weeks, new cases have spiked dramatically, as have positive test results. Since Sept. 5, 11 to 15 percent of tests among the MSU community have been positive, while the positivity rate among the county in recent weeks has climbed from 2 to 5 percent. Countywide, they more than doubled to 5 percent total from 2 percent over that time. 

State health officials have typically used a 3 percent positivity rate as a threshold for concern over community spread of the potentially deadly virus. 

Additionally, more than half of all new cases in Ingham County cases are among East Lansing residents, and the majority of those in East Lansing are MSU students, the health department reported.

On Aug. 18, Vail banned gatherings of 25 or more people. Day later, MSU President Samuel Stanley, a physician, told students he was “deeply concerned” about the increase in cases and the “apparent

disregard for public health measures as simple as wearing facial coverings, maintaining physical distance and avoiding large gatherings.”

Still, the Interfraternity Council last week voted against a moratorium for social events, although 17 chapters supported the moratorium, according to a letter from Guillermo Flores, MSU’s associate director for fraternity & sorority life.

The East Lansing Police Department has issued warnings and, in two cases, cease-and-desist letters to violators of the Aug. 18 health order, said Steve Gonzalez, the force’s interim chief.

The violators haven’t been typical college parties of “200, 300 or 400 people,” he said. Rather, they’ve been smaller — 50 or 60 people.  Moreover, some gatherings have come just under the August order — with just a dozen or so people.

“Just because you're under 25 people doesn't mean that you're not going to spread the virus,” he added.

But violations of the new order will be sent directly to the prosecutor's office for charges, he said.

Those who violate the quarantine may be charged with a misdemeanor and face up to six months in jail or a fine of up to $200.

“Hopefully we won't have to get to a point where we are requesting charges from the prosecutor's office but we’ll do so if needed,” he said. 

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