Two clusters of COVID-19 infections in student housing at UNC-Chapel Hill

By: - August 14, 2020 3:03 pm

Two clusters of COVID-19 infections have been identified in student housing at UNC-Chapel Hill, the university confirmed Friday afternoon.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services defines a cluster as five or more cases in close proximity.

Sources on campus, including resident advisors and Carolina Housing employees, told Policy Watch Thursday and Friday that the identified clusters include more than ten people total.

The infections occurred at the Ehringhaus Residence Hall and Granville Towers, according to the school.

Granville Towers, an apartment complex technically off-campus at UNC-Chapel Hill but owned by the UNC Foundation and partnered with Carolina Housing.

Ehringhaus is a high-rise residence hall with a capacity for 640 residents. There are 485 residents there as of Friday, according to the school.

Granville Towers is an apartment complex technically off-campus, owned by the UNC Foundation and partnered with Carolina Housing. The complex has capacity for 1,300 residents. Of those, around 75 percent are first-year students.

There were 1,002 students living in Granville Tower as of Monday, the school confirmed.

The university has provided no information about the number of infections or how many of the infections are students, faculty or staff.

The school first acknowledged the clusters in a message through its Carolina Alert system Friday afternoon.

That message in its entirety:

Students, faculty and staff:

The University has identified two separate clusters of COVID-19 cases in Ehringhaus Community and Granville Towers. A “cluster” is defined by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services as five or more cases that are deemed close proximity in location. “Location” is defined as a single residential hall or dwelling.

We are notifying the campus of these clusters per guidance under of the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Crime Statistics Act, which establishes requirements regarding health and safety information that universities must share with their campuses.

The individuals in these clusters have been identified and are isolating and receiving medical monitoring. We have also notified the Orange County Health Department and are working with them to identify additional potential exposures.

All residents in these living spaces have been provided additional information about these clusters and next steps. Contact tracing has been initiated with direct communication to anyone determined to have been a close contact with a positive individual. A close contact is defined as someone who has been within 6 feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes when either person has not been wearing a face covering. Those identified as a close contact will be notified directly and provided with further guidance.

Anyone experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, which include fever, shortness of breath, muscle aches or a cough, should immediately contact their medical provider, Campus Health (919-966-2281) or the University Employee Occupational Health Clinic (919-966-9119).

The University will not broadly communicate details about individual positive cases, consistent with the State Human Resources Act and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, as well as other privacy considerations.

As part of the Carolina Together Roadmap, the University has been preparing for five months to identify, trace and isolate potential positive cases both on and off campus for our students, faculty and staff. For more information on these preparations and University’s guidelines, visit

The University will continue to monitor on-campus behavior and compliance with the University’s Community Standards and guidelines on face masksphysical distancing and gatherings and events.

The announcement of the clusters comes at the end of the first week of classes on campus.

Last month the Orange County Health Department recommended that the school move to all online classes for the fall semester or at least for its first five weeks. It also recommended that the school limit on-campus housing to those who would have no other housing options.

After consulting with the UNC Board of Governors and UNC System President Peter Hans, administrators at the school decided not to follow either of those recommendations.

Policy Watch reached out to the UNC System office for comment on the cluster of infections at UNC-Chapel Hill and potential off-ramps Friday.

A UNC System spokesman said all questions about the cluster of infections and potential off ramps would have to be directed to UNC-Chapel Hill.

The system president and chairman of the board of governors have made it clear chancellors cannot make the final decision about ending on-campus instruction at their universities.

At a June meeting with the UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Executive Committee, medical experts talked about potential “off-ramps” on UNC-Chapel Hill’s road to return.

Of particular concern, all agreed: clusters of infection.

“We have worried a lot about clusters of infections,” said Dr. Mike Cohen, director of UNC’s Institute for Global Health and Infectious Disease. “We think clusters of infections would represent either we don’t understand math — which would be a terrible thing to happen — or that we’ve allowed density to occur that we’ve tried desperately to avoid.”

Dr. Erica Pettigrew, medical director of both the Orange County Health Department and Occupational Health at UNC Health Care, agreed.

“Any time we see a cluster, that’s when we have the legal mandate to go in and investigate, figure out what infection control issues need to be implemented and do things need to be shut down,” Pettigrew said.

Asked about the impact of these clusters on potential off-ramps, the university provided the following statement late Friday:

“Regarding the University’s planning for potential off ramps, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Robert A. Blouin has previously noted:

“When determining an off ramp, the University will consider multiple metrics across the dashboard, in consultation with the UNC System and public health officials. These metrics include: 

·         Public health and hospital capacity

·         Availability of rapid and accurate testing and contact tracing

·         Continuity of critical functions in support of on-campus operations

·         Campus adherence to Community Standards and guidelines

·         Consideration of external factors that may influence campus operations”


A special virtual meeting of the UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Executive Committee has been called for Monday, August 17.

Dr. Mimi Chapman, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, said Friday

“It’s obviously concerning,” said Dr. Mimi Chapman, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill faculty, on Friday.

“I started the week in a much more hopeful frame of mind,” she said, looking at numbers that seemed optimistic.

The school anticipated infections, Chapman said, which is why it set up isolation and quarantine dorms.

“It is a little shocking that it has happened quite so quickly,” she said.

Chapman said she was glad the school sent an alert through the campus alert system and is not concerned about transparency.

She would still prefer to see the campus COVID-19 dashboard updated daily rather than weekly, she said.

The school moved from daily updates to an update once per week due to what it said was privacy concerns. If only one or two people were infected and that number of people moved out of the dorm, for instance, it would be easier to determine who is infected. Transparency and open government advocates dispute that explanation.

Chapman said she has requested the dashboard be updated at least twice a week.

This is a developing story that Policy Watch is continuing to follow.

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.