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Communal living spaces and a younger population may be a contributing factor to new surges in COVID-19 cases on college campuses.

USA TODAY

Coronavirus cases continue to mushroom at the University of Alabama, with 1,043 cases among faculty, staff and students since Aug. 19, the first day of on-campus classes.

On Friday, newly released figures showed the university recorded 481 new cases of COVID-19 on its campus in the previous three days alone. The college had reported 158 cases among employees and students before Aug. 19.

The cases are separate from the school’s re-entry testing program, which required students to take a COVID-19 test before fall semester and returned only 310 positives out of 30,000 students. Cases quickly spread as students moved onto campus and Greek houses held pre-semester events. 

The new cases are a small percentage of the more than 35,100 students, faculty and staff that make up Alabama’s campus. But university and Tuscaloosa officials this week expressed concern about the school’s quarantine dorm capacity along with the strain a rapid surge in cases would place on the city’s health care infrastructure. 

‘A complete fantasy’? College students are moving in, but they’re making COVID-19 backup plans

Isolation space at Alabama was occupied at 36% capacity as of Thursday, according to the university’s dashboard. 

College reopenings across the nation have led to significant outbreaks, and in some cases, reversals of campus reopenings — many blamed on fraternity and sorority gatherings or residential spaces.

UNC reported 130 student cases in the first week it met in person, and the school quickly switched to remote learning. Notre Dame University paused its in-person courses when it had 147 cases a week into its semester. Michigan State University followed suit before in-person courses even started.

Other schools are taking more targeted action. All Greek houses at Indiana University have been directed to suspend organizational activities because of positive COVID-19 tests, and eight houses are under quarantine. 

Colleges need COVID-19 tests to reopen:Some don’t have much of a plan

Five fraternities and one sorority have been placed on interim suspension and will be investigated by the University of Tennessee at Knoxville for breaking guidelines, after the school reported a total of 150 active cases of COVID-19 on Friday.

The University of Alabama, for its part, released new restrictions focused on limiting visitors and closing common areas in residential buildings, which include Greek houses and dorms. All dining on the campus became grab-and-go.

In Tuscaloosa, bars and restaurant bar service are shuttered for at least two weeks. 

“The truth is, fall in Tuscaloosa is in serious jeopardy,” Mayor Walt Maddox said Monday. “As mayor, my first responsibility is to protect the health, safety and welfare of this community and of every person that is living here, studying here or working here.” 

The university has said it could switch to virtual learning, as it did in the spring, at any time.

“At what point do they make the decision? What information are they basing their decisions off of?” said Tasha Coryell, an instructor in the English Department. “We’re getting a lot of words, not a lot of concrete information or sources about where this is coming from. When you’re in academia, that’s really frustrating. All of our work is supposed to based off of reliable sources. What information are they looking at that tells them that it’s safe to come back? What would tell them that things are unsafe?”

‘Want to enjoy our senior year’: Will off-campus parties doom fall semester?

Contributing: Gary Cosby, Tuscaloosa News; Elinor Aspegren, USA TODAY

Follow Melissa Brown on Twitter: @itsmelissabrown

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