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Biggest COVID-19 Outbreak Yet At University Of Chicago; School Implements Remote Classes, Restrictions

CHICAGO (CBS) -- In the biggest outbreak of COVID-19 since the start of the school year, more than 50 cases of the virus has been reported at the University of Chicago in the past 48 hours.

Undergraduate students at the university have been placed under a stay-at-home order for the outbreak, and CBS 2's Tara Molina has learned there is a likelihood that cases involve the highly-contagious B.1.1.7 variant that originated in the U.K.

According to a statement from the university, a "substantial number of cases are among students living on-campus, distributed across multiple residence halls." The university said it expects that number to increase.

The cases are being traced to off-campus fraternity parties.

Those who have tested positive are in isolation. Students living in residence halls must observe a new stay-at-home period of seven days, beginning immediately. Classes will be conducted remotely, starting Thursday, for at least seven days, the university said.

The university also urged students to arrange for a COVID-19 vaccine, either at the campus' vaccine clinic or other location.

The University of Chicago's student government spoke out in a video posted to social media on Thursday.

"It's difficult to put into words our disappointment about this situation – writing speaking about the irresponsibility of students and their impact on the entire UChicago and local South Side community, over a year into a global pandemic that's changed all of our lives," said College Council representative Naa Asheley Ashitey. "Even as we receive news of the campus shutdown, students continue to party off campus, in dorms, even in quarantine housing."

The student government members scolded the students behind those fraternity and off-campus parties – which the university said contributed to this spike in cases. They want those behind the parties to be held accountable for the outbreak's impact.

"We condemn the students who attended those parties knowing full well the risks and dangers of doing so," said Ali Veinbachs, co-chair of the Health and Wellness Committee for U of C Student Government. "We watched last month as Duke University went on lockdown after a slew of campus parties. We did not learn."

Student Government also drafted a letter calling for disciplinary action for those involved in the parties – including suspension of pre-registration privileges.

University of Chicago Student Government Letter on COVID

Those who attended the parties are violation of the university's Health Pact, SG leaders said.

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The student government members are the only voices we heard from on Thursday. The U of C communications team denied our interview requests and sent a statement instead.

According to a memo sent to the university community, there are concerns the outbreak here involves the highly-contagious B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant, which is "able to cause more severe disease in people of all ages."

The memo urges anyone on campus who has attended a party or gathering to get tested immediately, with contact tracing happening now.

The city's Department of Public Health said it is working with the U of C in investigating the outbreak:

"We are in contact with the University of Chicago about the cases at the school and are supporting them in their investigation. This is another reminder that while we are making progress in getting people vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, that everyone still needs to abide by the public health guidance and wear masks, practice social distancing and avoid large gatherings."

The State of Illinois is urging anyone who lives around the U of C to be really careful right now - keeping a distance and avoiding crowds:

"CDPH would take the lead on an outbreak investigation at U of C, and IDPH will support them with whatever they need. People should continue to wear masks, avoid large crowds, keep 6 feet of distance, get tested if they've been part of gatherings or believe they may have been exposed, and get vaccinated as soon as they can."

The full email to the campus community is as follows:

To: Members of the University Community
From: Michele Rasmussen, Dean of Students in the University, and Eric Heath, Associate Vice President for Safety & Security
Subject: Restrictions in Response to Large Cluster of COVID-19 Cases Among Undergraduates
Date: April 8, 2021

Last night we informed students in the College about urgent restrictions of campus activities in response to a large cluster of COVID-19 cases involving undergraduates.

Tests in recent days have detected more than 50 cases of COVID-19 involving students in the College, including many living in residence halls, and we expect this number to increase. Those who have tested positive are in isolation, following University protocols. Many of these cases may have been connected to one or more parties held by off-campus fraternities over the last week. We are particularly concerned because of the high likelihood that these cases involve the B.1.1.7 coronavirus variant, which is currently widespread in the Chicago area, appears to spread more easily than other variants, and is able to cause more severe disease in people of all ages.

Unfortunately, this is the largest cluster of cases to reach our campus community since the academic year began. We are taking a number of actions immediately to limit any further spread, including:

Stay-at-Home: Students living in residence halls must observe a new stay-at-home period of seven days, beginning immediately and lasting through April 15.
• Remote Courses: Classes in the College will be fully remote for at least seven days, beginning Thursday, April 8. This applies only to College classes. In-person graduate classes may continue to meet as scheduled.
• Dining Commons: All dining in the on-campus dining commons will be on a takeout basis only until further notice.
• COVID-19 Testing: Any students who have recently attended a party, or an unmasked gathering, should be tested immediately for COVID-19.
• Contact Tracing: We urge all students to cooperate fully with the University's Contact Tracing Team. The combination of contact tracing and testing is essential to help limit further spread of cases on campus. If you are symptomatic, identified as a close contact or test positive, please report immediately to
Tents: All outdoor tents on campus will be closed for the duration of the stay-at-home period.
• Events and Programming: Non-curricular in-person programming for College students is suspended during the stay-at-home period. This includes undergraduate RSO activities and residence hall programs and outings.

How to schedule a screening
• Faculty, academic appointees, postdoctoral researchers, and staff members should call the UChicago Medicine triage hotline at 773.702.2800 to arrange a test and receive any needed medical attention.
• Students should call UChicago Student Wellness at 773.834.WELL.
• Employees of UCM or the Biological Sciences Division may call 773.702.6819.

Please note, we encourage all members of the University community to be vaccinated at the earliest opportunity, whether through the University's dedicated vaccine clinic or through other providers. If you receive a UCM MyChart activation notice or vaccine scheduling invitation through the University's vaccine clinic, please respond quickly if you plan to be vaccinated. Scheduling invitations are released on a rolling basis, depending on vaccine supply and capacity. See the April 2 update message for more information.

We need everyone to continue to follow the requirements of the UChicago Health Pact, including wearing face coverings, maintaining a distance of 6 feet whenever possible, and complying with all restrictions on social gatherings. We are hopeful that taking swift, comprehensive steps now should address this outbreak and allow us to conclude the academic year safely. Additional steps may be needed if there is further spread of COVID-19, including placing further restrictions on in-person activities for Spring Quarter or scaling back planned College Convocation events.

We know this setback is a disappointment after the successes of this academic year. With the continued commitment of the University community, we will meet this latest challenge."

The university added in a statement:

"All students at the University are subject to University policies and disciplinary procedures regardless of membership in outside organizations.

"Most members of the University community have upheld public health requirements, and we continue to encourage voluntary compliance with expectations. However, the University has procedures in place to address serious non-compliance, and we will continue to take measures necessary to address misconduct.

"Symptomatic testing takes place at the UCM curbside testing location – not at the ER. More information is on the GoForward website."

The stay-at-home order, a copy of which was uploaded by the Chicago Maroon student newspaper, requires students to remain socially distanced from others as much as possible, check themselves regularly for symptoms, and abstain from any nonessential activities. No guests are allowed in dorm rooms, and all dormitory house lounges, music practice rooms, and courtyards will be closed.

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There have been 918 reported cases of COVID at the U of C since the start of the academic year, according to the university's COVID dashboard.

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