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USC develops closing plans after COVID-19 cases double: 'Will pull the plug if I have to'

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John A. Carlos II (copy)

University of South Carolina President Bob Caslen

John A. Carlos II / Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — University of South Carolina President Bob Caslen has asked his staff to consider closing the state's largest college after COVID-19 cases doubled in a day.

Caslen stressed during a town hall meeting Thursday that he is not ready to shut down the campus after starting the semester with a combination of in-person and online classes, and a USC epidemiologist said the school's case totals were within what was forecast.

But a shock came Thursday when USC reported 191 new coronavirus cases in a single day, bringing the total to 380 during the first week of classes. Almost all of those infected are students.

"We cannot sustain (191) new cases a day," Caslen told faculty and staff. "I've asked (Chief of Staff) Mark Bieger and the staff to develop shutdown options. And I certainly will pull the plug if I have to."

Caslen said many of the positive cases are coming out of the 20 fraternity and sorority houses in the Greek Village.

USC has now quarantined five houses in its Greek Village after three houses received new restrictions Thursday. The school will likely quarantine more of the houses by the end of the week, Caslen said.

Four Greek organizations have been suspended for hosting large parties, USC spokesman Jeff Stensland said. An undisclosed number of students also have been disciplined for hosting parties and breaking quarantine. 

The outbreak in the Greek Village came after virtual sorority recruitment ended. USC still plans to have in-person fraternity recruitment starting Labor Day week with safety protocols in place. A fraternity open house will be held at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center to allow for social distancing, said Anna Edwards, associate vice president for student life.

USC has sent letters to students and families in the past week with stern warnings on how holding parties and breaking quarantine can lead to suspension and expulsion. One letter cited a "number of alarming incidents" that led to cases of alcohol poisoning.

USC expected coronavirus cases to rise when more than 30,000 students returned to campus for classes. USC is the only major S.C. public college that started the fall semester with some in-person classes.

The school required students to have negative tests at least 14 days before they returned and launched a public-awareness campaign to encourage safe behavior, such as social distancing and mask wearing.

But USC was not able to catch all the infected students before they arrived, Caslen said. And after they arrived, many attended large parties, evidence of which dotted social media over the weekend.

"Was it predictable? Yes. Is is acceptable? Absolutely not," Caslen said. "We had appealed to students to do the right thing, although we knew realistically what we could expect."

USC is using a dashboard with 11 criteria — including testing, supplies and quarantine bed availability — to decide whether to close campus. 

Caslen said he is concerned about the impact on Columbia if he moves all classes to online because 80 percent of students live off campus. Most students will remain and will continue their same activities, including holding parties. They also will need to use health facilities around the city.

Caslen wants to make sure USC can help the students who remain in town.

"This is not necessarily a problem that I am prepared to dump into the city of Columbia," he said. "This is a problem that is ours."

The spike in positive cases sent hundreds of students to get tested. Videos posted by several media outlets Thursday showed a long line to get the school's new saliva test. Some students said they waited for hours outside before getting a test.

USC closed the Columbia campus for the spring semester in March after the coronavirus outbreak started. 

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