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Records from before reopening show experts warned UNC of COVID-19 outbreaks

DTH Photo Illustration of a series of emails from UNC administration concerning COVID-19 and fall's reopening plan.

This is the first article in a series unpacking these documents, and what insights they offer on the fall reopening plans.  

Students, faculty and staff are saying they expected UNC to close due to COVID-19 spikes before the announcement Monday that undergraduate courses would shift to remote learning — and documents obtained by The Daily Tar Heel show that the administration received warning months ago from top medical professionals at the University. 

Experts sent messages about the likelihood of a COVID-19 outbreak in the event that the University reopened dorms and on-campus experiences.

“I think we all assume we will SEE COVID this fall,” Dr. Myron Cohen said in an email on May 27. 

Cohen is associate vice chancellor for Global Health and Medical Affairs at UNC and a professor of epidemiology in the Gillings School of Global Public Health. 

This email was sent to several faculty members at the school of public health, and cc’ed to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Provost Bob Blouin.

University leaders defended their decision to reopen at an emergency Faculty Executive Committee Monday evening, with Provost Bob Blouin saying: “I do not apologize for trying.”

As the administration was drafting the Roadmap in May, a two-week sample of Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz’s public emails offers insight into many facets of the planning that went into reopening campus, including faculty who reached out with concerns surrounding many situations that since arose. 

Asked about whether the administration planned for the amount of positive cases it saw and if UNC planned for such an outbreak, Guskiewicz said in a statement that the University planned for some positive cases and saw widespread compliance with the Community Standards throughout campus. 

"Ultimately, we were surprised by the velocity and the magnitude of the spread. I am disappointed for our students who wanted to be here and who were diligently following our Community Standards both on and off campus. I thank our amazing students and faculty for their resilience, and I look forward to a time when we can return to a normal campus experience for everyone," he said in the statement. 

Early warning messages 

Guskiewicz’s May emails show that Cohen was consulted regularly throughout the reopening planning phase.

In the May 27 email, Cohen listed five “aspirations,” including avoiding clusters, eliminating infections in people with comorbidity and exploring vaccines. 

“But we need to define failures (STOPPING RULES),” Cohen wrote in bold. He then listed clusters, hospitalizations, deaths and endemic cases.

An hour and a half later, Audrey Pettifor responded. Pettifor is a professor in the department of epidemiology in the school of public health.

“I agree we will see cases, very likely we will have outbreaks in dorms and on campus, so we need to be really clear about next steps when that happens,” Pettifor wrote.

The Carolina Together website, which announced UNC’s plans to reopen campus with in-person classes and open residence halls and houses the Roadmap, launched one day later.

A statement from Kate Maroney of UNC Media Relations on August 17 — sent five hours before UNC administration announced the move to online-only undergraduate instruction — addressed the off-ramps and this email exchange.

“The Carolina Together Dashboard represents the metrics that the University will consider when considering an off-ramp, in consultation with the UNC System and public health officials. The individuals you reference were a part of the process of developing the dashboard,” Maroney said via email.

In a message to the campus community on May 21, Guskiewicz announced the forthcoming Roadmap.

“Based on advice from our infectious disease and public health experts, who believe we could be facing a second wave of COVID-19 sometime late fall or early winter, we are making significant changes to our operations. On their guidance, we are starting and finishing the fall semester early in an effort to stay ahead of that second wave,” the message stated. 

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On May 15, Leslie Nelson-Bernier, President of UNC Health Foundation, emailed David Routh, vice chancellor for University development, with models through the end of the year for hospitalizations. Nelson-Bernier pointed out that the peak of the model was mid-September, with 700 hospitalizations at UNC Health. She said that number was a little more than half of the hospital capacity.

The national reopening experiment  

In this two week period of emails, several other universities across the country reached out to UNC administration or faculty asking how UNC was handling reopening.

The universities from this non-comprehensive set of emails include the executive director of Cal Alumni Association for UC Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania.

President of the University of Michigan Mark Schlissel, the first physician-scientist to lead the university according to the UMich website, reached out to Cohen asking how UNC was organizing itself for reopening. 

Schlissel said he was struggling with how to bring 30,000 undergrads back to Ann Arbor.

Cohen emailed Guskiewicz on May 16, letting him know that Schlissel reached out for advice. Guskiewicz said he was okay with sharing overall ideas while acknowledging that UNC’s plan was still in development. 

In the same email, Guskiewicz said, “In the webinar on Wednesday, we need to convince people that given what we know today — we believe we can safely do this, but will need to be prepared to pivot this summer or during the fall if the situation changes.”

He was referring to a webinar with other University leaders occurring on May 20, hosted by himself and Blouin, to discuss operations under a reopening plan and for University employees to ask questions.

Cohen responded, “I am on calls all day about COVID disruption. The problem is NO ONE can tell you when it will be ‘safe.’ We might develop wonderful interventions this fall so a year delay (Cal State) is great ... or not. So we need to find the middle ground you are seeking. I am MOST concerned about keeping students AWAY from older faculty, as indicated in your document.”

A couple weeks later, on May 27, Dean of College of Arts and Sciences Terry Rhodes emailed Guskiewicz an op-ed that appeared in the New York Times from the president of the University of Notre Dame titled “We’re Reopening Notre Dame. It’s Worth the Risk.”

Previously, on May 19, Guskiewicz had forwarded Notre Dame’s reopening message to two members of UNC’s communications staff, saying he liked the message.

On Tuesday — one day after UNC — Notre Dame enacted a period of two-week remote instruction after reopening on Aug. 10 and subsequently facing a COVID-19 outbreak.

Rhodes said in the email on May 27 that she thought the piece spoke to what UNC was also trying to do with reopening.

Guskiewicz thanked her for sharing and said, “There are several other AAU schools about to do the same. I think we will be in like with many other universities. I think we will have one of the best roadmaps to help guide us.”


CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this article included Duke University in a list of universities that asked UNC for information about its reopening plans. Information from Duke was forwarded to UNC about Duke's reopening plans, however Duke never formally requested information from UNC about its reopening in the period in which these emails were collected. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.