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UConn students evicted from dorms for holding pandemic party as schools grapple with COVID-19 crisis

Florida's coronavirus death toll tops 10,000, a New Jersey city considers fining mask refuseniks, and NYC teachers talk strike.
University of Connecticut in Storrs, Conn.
The University of Connecticut in Storrs.Carol M. Highsmith / Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Several University of Connecticut students were looking for new digs Wednesday after the dangers of reopening universities during a pandemic were laid bare in a video that showed undergrads living it up at a packed dorm room party where almost nobody was wearing a mask and there was zero social distancing.

While the worst offenders were slapped with eviction notices, UConn officials gave no sign that they intend to follow the lead of other colleges, like the University of Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, that canceled in-class instruction and sent students home for the semester after coronavirus outbreaks on their campuses.

"These actions do not represent or speak for the 5,000 residents currently composing our residential community," UConn Dean of Students Eleanor Daugherty and Residential Life Director Pamela Schipani said of the video in a letter to students late Tuesday. "The vast majority of our students are doing the right thing."

But so far five students who live on campus have tested positive and were placed in UConn's isolation space, and 25 others who came in contact with them were in quarantine, the university said. Two other students who live off-campus also tested positive.

"There will undoubtedly be more positive cases as more test results are returning in the coming days, and we will address each the same way as we work to protect the health of individual students and our community," Daugherty said in a statement.

Public health experts like Dr. Howard Koh, a Harvard University professor who was assistant secretary of health and human services for health during the administration of President Barack Obama, said it shouldn't surprise anyone that America's universities are struggling right now.

"At every step of the pandemic, society has underestimated the tenacity of the virus and overestimated our ability to contain it," Koh said in an email. "The college outbreaks represent yet another example of this theme."

If they want to salvage the fall semester, America's universities will have to adapt to the current reality.

"Universities represent highly dynamic communities with thousands of young people — from around the country and the world — living and learning in close quarters," Koh wrote. "These clusters in the opening days of reopening make any sustained in-person learning much less likely for the upcoming Fall."

As it is, more than 1 in 5 college undergraduates don't plan to enroll this fall, according to a College Reaction/Axios poll of about 800 students this week.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

Officials at Iowa State University, where 175 students are starting off the semester in quarantine after having tested positive for COVID-19, warned that if undergrads continue flouting the school's rules by partying, they could wind up going home.

"Disregarding these health and safety policies jeopardizes the university's ability to provide in-person experiences and increases the chance that all classes will move online," Toyia Younger, the senior vice president for student affairs, and Sharron Evans, the dean of students, said in a statement. "If students want to complete the fall semester on campus, this disregard must stop."

Frustrated UNC-Chapel Hill students said school administrators didn't heed the warnings from students, parents and public health experts.

"Everybody told the university not to reopen, and it was only a matter of time," said Nikhil Rao, a student government senior adviser who has participated in online meetings with Provost Bob Blouin every month since April, along with other student leaders. "I would be shocked if I didn't know this was going to happen."

In South Bend, Indiana, Notre Dame's president, the Rev. John Jenkins, ordered that all undergraduate classes go online for the next two weeks after dozens of students were infected at an off-campus party. He also issued a warning: "If these steps are not successful, we'll have to send students home as we did last spring."

West Virginia University has already reported 96 positive cases since students started returning to the campus in Morgantown last week. Meanwhile, state health officials were looking into reports of coronavirus outbreaks at the University of Mississippi and the Mississippi University for Women.

Earlier, Oklahoma State University placed the Pi Beta Phi sorority under quarantine after 23 members tested positive. Clusters of coronavirus infections have also been reported at fraternities and sororities at Auburn University in Alabama and North Carolina State University.

Some schools, like Drexel University in Philadelphia, have already thrown in the towel and opted for remote-only learning in the fall semester for undergraduates. "We had all hoped to stage our gradual return to campus, but the shifting nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on other colleges and universities has necessitated a change of course for Drexel," President John Fry wrote in a letter to students.

In recent months, the average age of people who have contracted COVID-19 has been trending downward, the World Health Organization said.

In hard-hit Florida, which Wednesday became the fifth state to log more than 10,000 COVID-19 deaths, the median age of hospitalizations is 42, the state Health Department reported. The other states that have hit the depressing milestone are New York (33,685), New Jersey (15,926), California (11,531) and Texas (10,551), according to the latest NBC News tally.

New York and New Jersey racked up thousands of deaths in the early days of the pandemic when health officials were still trying to come up with a strategy to slow the spread of COVID-19 and feared that they would run out of hospital beds.

The numbers of new cases and deaths exploded in Southern and Sun Belt states like Florida, Texas and Arizona after they started reopening in May at the urging of President Donald Trump, while COVID-19 was still cresting.

"We haven't seen an explosion of new cases," Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a staunch Trump supporter, declared April 29, when the state had tallied 1,218 COVID-19 deaths and 33,193 cases.

The same day, DeSantis signed an executive order to begin reopening the state after a little less than two months in quarantine.

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As of Wednesday, there were 10,066 COVID-19 deaths in Florida and over 580,000 confirmed cases.

California, which has the most confirmed cases, at more than 640,000, was the first state to enact shelter-in-place rules. But Gov. Gavin Newsom, under pressure from businesses and other groups, began lifting restrictions in May and June, after which the numbers of new cases and deaths skyrocketed.

Nationally, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has topped 5.5 million, and the death toll as of Wednesday morning was close to 173,000, according to NBC News numbers. The U.S., which leads the world in both categories, has accounted for about a quarter of the more than 22 million cases and more than 782,000 deaths around the globe.

Trump has taken heat for being slow to respond to the crisis, for downplaying the danger and for doling out false or misleading information about the progress of the pandemic. He has also bristled at comparisons of the U.S. response to countries that succeeded in flattening the coronavirus curve, like New Zealand, which this week postponed a general election and sealed off the city of Auckland after a new outbreak.

"New Zealand, by the way, had a big outbreak," Trump told reporters Wednesday, adding that things are getting worse in countries that have been "held up to try and make us look not as good as we should look."

The big outbreak in New Zealand that Trump was referring to consisted of nine cases Monday, 13 more on Tuesday and six on Wednesday, according to the Health Ministry.

Since the start of the pandemic, New Zealand has logged 1,649 cases and 22 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 dashboard.

Florida reported 4,115 new cases and 174 more deaths on Wednesday alone. And Alabama, which, like New Zealand, has a population of about 4.9 million, added 969 new cases overnight and has reported 1,944 deaths and 111,478 cases since the crisis began.

In other developments:

  • If you're caught not wearing a mask in Hoboken, New Jersey, you could be hit with a fine of $250 or more. The City Council in the crowded little city across the Hudson River from Manhattan was expected Wednesday to vote on a measure that would put teeth in the city's mask mandate. More than half of the 3,000 residents who took part in a mask survey said they favored slapping mask refuseniks with hefty fines. Mayor Ravi Bhalla said fines have been tried in communities on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, like Chatham. "If you don't have a face mask on, you automatically get a $300 fine, and from what I hear they have virtually 100 percent compliance — everyone has a mask on," Bhalla said. While most public health experts and guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend wearing masks to slow the spread of the virus, the issue was politicized by Trump's initial refusal to wear one, and there has been resistance from some members of the public.
  • Speaking of masks, the 17-year-old Sesame Place worker in Pennsylvania who got his jaw busted after he told a couple to don face coverings can rest easy. The U.S. Marshals Service on Wednesday arrested Troy McCoy, 39, after, authorities say, he tried to barricade himself inside his Bronx, New York, home. Shakerra Bonds, 31, who lives with McCoy, was expected to surrender to authorities later. Both face charges of aggravated assault, simple assault, reckless endangerment, conspiracy, disorderly conduct and harassment in connection with an incident alleged to have occurred Aug. 9 near the Captain Cookie's High C's Adventure ride.
  • As New York Mayor Bill de Blasio moved forward with plans to reopen classrooms in the nation's biggest public school system, the powerful city teachers union said it was prepared to take legal action and even go on strike if conditions aren't safe. "The minute we feel the mayor is trying to force people into a situation that is unsafe, we go to court. We go to job actions," United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew warned. If teachers were to walk off their jobs, they would be breaking the so-called Taylor Law, which would fine and even jail teachers for striking. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave public schools in the state the green light this month to reopen classrooms in the fall.
  • The pandemic hasn't slowed the pace of police shootings, the American Civil Liberties Union reported Wednesday. Black, Latino and Native American people "are still more likely than white people to be shot and killed by police," the report revealed. "We thought maybe police would slow down their killing of people during the pandemic," said Udi Ofer, director of the ACLU's Justice Division. "We were wrong."
Joe Murphy contributed.