An outdoor classroom set up on Tulane's campus in November 2020. (Philip Kiefer/The Lens)

Tulane University President Michael Fitts announced on Thursday that “evidence of the U.K. variant” of COVID-19 had been detected in the university community. The news comes after a dramatic surge in cases on Tulane’s campus over the past 10 days, linked to parties at off-campus residences and at local bars.

In an email to university students and staff, Fitts said that the evidence had appeared within the last week. He also acknowledged that a case from Tulane had been confirmed by genetic sequencing at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a statement to The Lens, Michael Strecker, Tulane’s executive director of public relations, reiterated elements of the president’s email, including that the variant would soon be widespread in Louisiana. He noted that Tulane uses a PCR test that “can distinguish the UK COVID-19 variant – something that many tests used at most hospitals and other locations cannot provide.”

He did not answer emailed questions as to how many students were believed to have the variant, or whether those cases were connected to the recent outbreaks.

The Louisiana Department of Health has confirmed five cases of the UK variant in the state through the CDC, but a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Health said that the department could not comment specifically on the Tulane case. 

The UK variant, also called B117 is up to 50 percent more transmissible than the baseline strain of the virus, and preliminary evidence from the British government suggests that it could be 30 percent more deadly.

Public health officials in Louisiana have said that they expect the UK variant to become the dominant strain in the state within the next several months. Meanwhile, its ability to detect the variant through sequencing has lagged, a problem in many states due to lack of public investment.

The pace at which the variant becomes dominant will depend on the frequency of superspreader events. Tulane has announced that it will hold classes on Lundi Gras, in part to curb the potential for carnival-season parties, but professors have expressed concern that parties will happen no matter what.

Most cases at Tulane have been among undergraduates. Since last July, 1,846 undergraduates have tested positive, or roughly 25 percent of the undergraduate student body. According to a January interview with state epidemiologist Theresa Sokol, there’s no decisive estimate of the cumulative number of cases in Louisiana, but a reasonable guess would be somewhere upwards of 15 percent since March 2020.

On Monday, January 25, the number of COVID cases at Tulane began to rise, to a high of 86 cases diagnosed on Wednesday, January 27 alone. Between Monday and Friday of that week, 183 new cases were diagnosed by Tulane’s testing facilities.

The number of new cases dropped the following weekend, before rising again to 44 on Monday. As of data from Wednesday published on Tulane’s COVID dashboard, 521 students have tested positive since undergraduates returned to campus the week of January 10. 86 employees have tested positive over that period.

In a letter to the student body sent January 27, Dean of Students Erica Woodley attributed the surge to “large groups of unmasked students congregating in local bars and off-campus parties.”

In response, Tulane suspended six fraternities and sororities, although it has since lifted the suspension on two. Students belonging to those Greek organizations, as well as students who participated in Greek life recruitment over the past week, are required to undergo daily testing.

Tulane has one of few universal COVID-19 surveillance testing programs in the country, and processes thousands of tests a day, which officials have repeatedly argued allows them to control outbreaks quickly.

However, a recent study published in the journal Computer Methods in Biomechanics and Biomedical Engineering found that campus outbreaks early last fall drove outbreaks in the areas around the schools. (The study did not examine New Orleans specifically.)

“While most colleges were able to rapidly reduce the number of new infections,” the authors wrote, “many failed to control the spread of the virus beyond their own campus: Within only two weeks, 17 campus outbreaks translated directly into peaks of infection within their home counties.”

This article was updated with a statement from a Tulane spokesperson.