Lane County Public Health enacted a house quarantine policy in mid-October to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in aggregate housing communities, including fraternities and sororities.
The University of Oregon Greek system represents 35% of all current COVID-19 outbreaks in Lane County as of Nov. 3. An outbreak is defined as “two or more cases from two different households; usually tied to an event of some sort (party, trip, etc.).”
Associate Dean of Students Marcus Langford said LCPH approached the university with the idea of a house quarantine, and UO school decided to partner with them for the health and safety of the entire community. The policy applies to co-ops affiliated with the university as well as Greek live-in houses.
“If someone in one of these facilities tests positive, that person is removed because they have to go into isolation,” Langford said. “Once that happens, they determine how many folks were close contacts. If there are a high number of close contacts, they make the decision to quarantine the entire facility just because, from their perspective, it’s easier to manage and keep track of that way.”
Dr. Patrick Luedtke, a public health officer from LCPH, said the idea came from conversations with the Oregon Health Authority and looking at data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Luedtke said Michigan State University, University of Arizona, University of Kansas, University of Wisconsin Madison and University of South Carolina have had success with the same house quarantine policy.
“This builds on data that we have from about a hundred years ago, where the military learned that in barracks, where people are training and living close together in a high volume, there are certain things you can do to prevent spread from building to building,” Luedtke said. “That’s really where a fair amount of this respiratory quarantining began.”
Luedtke said the big difference between isolation and quarantine is that people isolate if they are sick and quarantine if they were exposed but are not yet sick. When somebody in a residence hall or Greek life facility tests positive for COVID-19, they are isolated at a different site so fewer healthy people are exposed. Then, those who meet the criteria for close contact are recommended for quarantine, which is typically 14 days.
The LCPH senior staff review the data of each case, look at the specifics of the house and move forward with a collaborative decision made with the university and student health staff member. Langford said whether or not everyone in a facility is a close contact depends on how the house operates.
“A lot of houses require masks in common facilities or if you step outside of your room,” Langford said. “My sense is that, thinking about the health and safety of their members as well as the overall community, that chapter presidents have been responsive to it.”
Langford said the staff in the Fraternity & Sorority Life office share information with the chapter presidents regularly, and together they’ve developed a blog and a list of COVID-19 resources. There have been several Zoom calls between chapter presidents and health officials from Lane County during which the health officials discussed their expectations of Greek organizations. Out of 20 chapter facilities, two have already gone through the house quarantine process.
“When this happens, the county will issue a notification to the house and folks who live in the houses, and it outlines expectations,” Langford said. “We typically follow up to have a conversation with them as well and we make the expectations known that way. That’s how we manage this, it’s just an effort to stay in contact with them.”
Luedtke said there has not been enough time to look at the data and determine whether policy has improved anything. However, he said he feels confident that this process will work.
“It’s always worth gathering data and reporting it and learning from it, but we know that certain things have worked for hundreds of years,” Luedtke said. “Quarantine works, period.”
Luedtke said everyone is at risk of contracting COVID-19 because people all breathe several times a minute. Some people are at higher risk than others, but everyone is capable of spreading the virus to somebody who is at high risk.
“Depending on your point of view, you could say that it is a liberty issue or you could say it’s a selfish issue and not looking at the whole community,” Luedtke said. “We all need to be protective of ourselves and others. This is an opportunity to do the right thing by ourselves and by our community.”