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Oklahoma State University quarantines entire sorority after 23 members test positive for COVID-19

Arizona teachers stage a "sickout," while actress Sharon Stone blames "Non-Mask wearers" for her sister's infection.
Firefighters wear protective equipment to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Texas
A firefighter wears equipment to protect against the spread of the coronavirus in Houston on Aug. 15, 2020.Callaghan O'Hare / Reuters

Fall semester classes at Oklahoma State University began Monday with the entire Pi Beta Phi sorority under quarantine after 23 members tested positive for the coronavirus.

Only one Pi Beta Phi member was showing symptoms and none of her sorority sisters were being allowed to leave the off-campus house, officials said.

“At this point, no members have been hospitalized and any who are ill are experiencing minor effects of the virus,” Pi Beta Phi strategic initiatives director Shawn Eagleburger said in a statement.

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The sorority sisters who moved into the Pi Beta Phi house between Aug. 2 and Aug. 6 all tested negative for COVID-19, Eagleburger said.

But as Pi Beta Phi embarked on a virtual recruitment drive to attract new pledges, some of the sorority sisters let their guard down.

“Eager to reconnect with friends, on August 11, a small group of members who reside outside of the facility joined the chapter for a short, informal gathering at the facility,” Eagleburger wrote. “On August 12, the Chapter President was informed one of these members was experiencing symptoms of COVID-19; the member later confirmed she had tested positive. On August 14, members who since began experiencing symptoms were tested; many tested positive.”

University spokeswoman Monica Roberts said the campus was bracing for this possibility of mass infections.

“This was expected,” Roberts told The Daily Oklahoman on Saturday. “When you bring back 20,000 students, there will invariably be more cases related to campus. We’ve prepared for this for five months and have protocols in place to manage the situation. Our priority is the safety and well-being of our campus community and transparency in communications.”

The lockdown at Pi Beta Phi came as Oklahoma has seen a surge in new COVID-19 infections, averaging close to 800 new cases per day in the last four weeks, according to an NBC News analysis of available figures.

Among those infected last month was Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican and ally of President Donald Trump who was criticized for his cavalier approach in the early days of the unfolding crisis. So far, Oklahoma has reported 48,342 cases and 661 COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

Nationally, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases was nearing 5.5 million and the death toll as of Monday morning was over 171,000, according to the NBC News numbers. The U.S., which leads the world in both categories, has accounted for roughly a quarter of the 22 million cases and 776,000 deaths across the globe.

"It's going away," Trump told reporters for the umpteenth time at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. "But, we’re also going to have vaccines very soon."

Trump, who has downplayed the dangers of the pandemic and previously predicted a vaccine would be available by Election Day, once again offered no new evidence to back up either assertion.

Most of the new cases and deaths in the U.S. have been in Southern and Sun Belt states that reopened at the urging of the Trump Administration as the numbers of new COVID-19 cases were starting to climb.

Florida has been hit especially hard in recent months. For the 76th day in a row, the state health department Monday reported more than 1,000 new cases. And the Sunshine State was on track to soon join California as the only states with more than 600,000 confirmed cases, NBC News figures showed.

As of Monday afternoon, Florida had also reported 9,586 deaths.

The American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living said in an updated report Monday that there has been a "major spike in new COVID cases" that has now surpassed the previous peak level on May 31 and that 78 percent of them are in Sun Belt states.

While nursing home deaths from the coronavirus had been declining, they are on the rise again and 69 percent of deaths in late July occurred in Sun Belt states, the report concluded.

Other national coronavirus updates:

  • Oklahoma State is not the only major university where the decision to reopen the school is being second-guessed. At the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, which reopened last week and where at least four clusters of COVID-19 infections have been reported, the student newspaper expressed its dismay with the school's leadership by printing an editorial which had the word "cluster----" in the headline. "We all saw this coming," The Daily Tar Heel editorial board wrote. "University leadership should have expected students, many of whom are now living on their own for the first time, to be reckless. Reports of parties throughout the weekend come as no surprise." While the students bear some of the blame, it was up to UNC-Chapel Hill to "disincentivize such gatherings by reconsidering its plans to operate in-person earlier on." Buckling under the pressure, UNC-Chapel Hill announced later Monday it was converting to all virtual classes.
  • Coronavirus cases are already being reported in the K-12 schools that have reopened, but the federal government is not tracking these outbreaks and some states are not publicly reporting them, NBC News reported Monday. This makes it harder for researchers to determine what can be done to prevent cases in schools from spreading. “Without good data that tracks cases over time — and shows how one case turns into many cases — there's just no way to answer that question,” said Emily Oster, an economist at Brown University and co-founder of COVID Explained.
  • The tensions between parents eager to get their kids back in class and teachers who fear getting infected was on display in Arizona where a school district outside Phoenix was forced to cancel classes Monday after more than a 100 teachers staged a sickout. "We have received an overwhelming response from staff indicating that they do not feel safe returning to classrooms with students," Gregory Wyman, superintendent of the J.O. Combs Unified School District, said in a letter to parents on Friday. Wyman said he did not know when “in-person instruction” would resume and that virtual-learning was canceled as well. The teachers’ action was in a defiance of a 3-2 vote by the district’s governing board to reopen the classrooms. Teachers union president Joe Thomas said the district did not take into consideration benchmarks the Arizona Department of Health Services urged schools rely on to determine when they would reopen.

  • Actress Sharon Stone revealed over the weekend that her younger sister Kelly Stone was in the hospital battling COVID-19 and blamed people who refused to wear masks for her infection. "My sister Kelly, who already has lupus, now has COVID-19," the “Basic Instinct” star wrote in an Instagram post. "This is her hospital room. One of you Non-Mask wearers did this. She does not have an immune system."

  • The twin shafts of light that symbolize the fallen Twin Towers and commemorate the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks will be lit after all. The 9/11 Memorial, which had canceled the annual event because of COVID-19 concerns, reversed course over the weekend after public outcry. “In the last 24 hours we’ve had conversations with many interested parties and believe we will be able to stage the tribute in a safe and appropriate fashion,” 9/11 Memorial and Museum President and CEO Alice M. Greenwald said. The “Tribute in Light” will send the beams upward into the night sky from dusk on Sept. 11 to dawn on Sept. 12 in lower Manhattan. Once the hottest of hot spots in the nation, New York has been able to flatten its coronavirus curve. Gov. Andrew Cuomo reported Monday that of the 56,891 tests reported Sunday just 408, or less than one percent, were positive. There were also six more deaths.
Joe Murphy contributed.