With Bans On Parties Impossible To Enforce, UT Austin Looks To Lessons From The Cabo Cluster

Oct 9, 2020

It's what she's not seeing that scares Darlene Bhavnani most – what's lurking under the surface.

"I'm scared, because what I'm seeing is what I'm seeing," the epidemiologist at UT's Dell Medical School says. "But ... you're just seeing the tip of the iceberg."

Since UT Austin reopened for the fall semester, it has faced a crucial challenge: how to limit the spread of COVID-19 on the Forty Acres and ensure that spread doesn't spill over into the greater Austin area.

Bhavnani has been tasked with tracking the spread, and while there's been a leveling off as of late, she's still on guard. Local orders banning student gatherings haven't been enforced on a large scale, and a spike in on- and off-campus cases could cripple Austin's hospital system.

So, Bhavnani and others are looking to UT's earliest response to COVID-19 for guidance on how to navigate.

The Cabo Cluster

Last spring, when 60 people tested positive for COVID-19 after a spring break trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, the university had to act quickly. It isolated the travelers, tested them, and then began the grueling work of tracing their contacts.

It was a real-time experiment, like building a boat while you're setting out to sea or building a plane while you're in the air.

One benefit of that real-time experiment, Bhavnani says, was that the patients were asymptomatic – but that was a bit of a double-edged sword.

"The one lesson that we learned from March is that a large proportion [of positive cases] are younger and healthy," she says. "But what that means is that students may be infected, walking around, socializing, mixing, studying, working and unknowingly infecting others."

Still, nobody died as a result of that cluster, and only 4 people outside the Cabo trip contracted COVID-19 as the result of those initial 60 people who'd gone on it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention propped up Bhavnani and Dell Med's ability to contact trace and isolate patients as a model for potential outbreaks on campuses nationwide. UT Austin largely seemed to have dodged a bullet.

COVID, Kickoff

As the fall semester approached, UT baked in some restrictions for students to avoid another Cabo.

Classes would be mostly remote. Parties would be banned – on and off campus. UT officials said they would lean on the city to enforce that ban, as Austin's own orders prohibit gatherings of more than 10 people.

"It must have been hundreds of students going in and out of the party in the frat house."

But the university also forged ahead with the Longhorn football season, which led to a handful of parties ahead of the team's first home game against the UT El Paso Miners in early September.

One of those parties happened down the street at the Texas RHO fraternity house. Rob, a West Campus resident who didn't want to be identified because of safety concerns, said there were roughly 200 people there – and no distancing, no masks.

"Around 5 p.m., I go outside and I see there's just ... it must have been hundreds of students going in and out of the party in the frat house," he says.

Rob has lived in West Campus for a couple years. His wife graduated in May, and they were set to close on a house when she lost her job. That meant they had to stay at their current place for the foreseeable future.

He called the city to complain about the party and asked staff to send someone out there.

Rob's photo of the party at the Texas RHO house on Sept. 12. The party was one of four tickets for violating the city's ban on gatherings.
Credit Courtesy of Rob

"[They said] that they would start an investigation on it within the next three days," he says. "To which I was like, 'Well that's great, but they're not going to be partying in three days. They're partying right now.'"

The city told him to call UTPD. UTPD forwarded him to UT's "Behavioral COVID Hotline." He spoke with someone there. They said they would open an investigation and that he could take it up with the dean of students.

Rob says it's frustrating.

"There's been no accountability on the students, but there also isn't accountability on the people who claimed they were going to take accountability out on them," he says. "So, you know, a few months ago before UT opened, they kept talking about this zero-tolerance [policy] ... and nothing happened. And it seems like not much is going to happen."

Cite Unseen

Rob's frustration isn't happening in a vacuum. The departments tasked with enforcing these bans on gatherings – largely – aren't enforcing them.

According to a records request, only four tickets for gatherings have been issued since March by the Austin Fire Marshal and the Austin Code Department – the two departments tasked with citing folks for violating the gathering ban. (And one of those tickets was for the party Rob complained about.)

West Campus presents a particular problem. It's the most dense neighborhood in Austin, so inaction on the city's part could mean cases spread as parties continue. For context, between Aug. 1 and Sept. 22, roughly 40% of complaints about gatherings in the entire city came from 78705, the ZIP code that includes West Campus, according to a public records request of complaints within that time frame.

Educational Benefit

The university has seen three COVID clusters totaling more than 100 people in the last few weeks, according to Austin Public Health. And parties were still going on ahead of last week's home game against TCU.

Bhavnani likens a potential spread to a chain, with each link representing a COVID case; some chains are short, others are longer. She says, recently, the chains of transmission haven't lengthened the way she thought they would – and there hasn't been an explosion in cases.

But there are still some obstacles to using the strategy that worked so well after Cabo.

First, there's a reticence on the part of students to get tested. At the start of the semester, UT set out to test 5,000 people a week, and while it's moving toward that goal, as of this week, it has tested only about 3,500 people.

On top of that, the university can't mandate testing. In a memo last week, UT told faculty and staff that state and federal law won't allow mandatory testing for students – except before football games or other activities that aren't considered an "educational benefit."

And contact tracers are overworked. Bhavnani says they're putting in 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. Even though UT is getting contact-tracing help from Austin Public Health, they're still relying heavily on volunteers.

Break The Chain

Modeling from UT shows if student-to-student transmission from gatherings gets higher, it could contribute to a "significantly higher number of COVID-19 hospitalizations by December, which could overrun Austin's hospital infrastructure.

But, that's a worst-case scenario, the same analysis says if UT "enforces strict control measures such as prohibiting large gatherings ... it can slow the spread of the virus ... and minimize spillover into the surrounding community."

Again, for now, Bhavnani says those chains of transmission aren't getting longer.

"So far, transmission chains – the majority of transmission chains – seem to be short, but it's only a matter of time," she says. "If we keep seeing behavior that's going underground or cases not being detected, it's quite possible that those chains could lengthen, and so we are watching very closely."

Bhavnani is urging students to get tested. It's anonymous, as is contact tracing. She says that is the university's best hope to shortening, and – eventually – breaking those chains of transmission.

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at aweber@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

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