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COVID-19 cases at Western's London, Ont. campus, seen here on Jan. 8, 2020, have ballooned to 28.The Canadian Press

The University of Western Ontario is shutting down activities but not classes at its London campus after a COVID-19 outbreak ballooned to 28 cases.

The university announced that its athletics and recreation program would be closed and in-person clubs and events on campus will move online. Access to libraries and other campus buildings will now be restricted. Classes will continue and residences remain open.

“We’re deeply disturbed by this outbreak and we want to do our share and more to curb it,” Western president Alan Shepard said at a Thursday press conference. “I’m asking all Western students to do what doesn’t come naturally to young students and stay home.”

He added that students shouldn’t attend or hold parties. If students place the lives and safety of others at risk, the university is prepared to investigate complaints and enforce the student code of conduct, which includes disciplinary measures up to expulsion, Dr. Shepard said.

London Mayor Ed Holder had stern words for students and citizens. He said he was “angry and frustrated,” by the rapidly growing case count.

“I cannot put it more plainly: If this continues you are going to kill someone,” Mr. Holder said. “Should daily case counts remain this high for a sustained period, community spread is a near certainty and it’s a matter of when, not if, somebody dies. Wouldn’t that be an awful burden to carry.”

Dr. Shepard said the concerning behaviour involves a relatively small minority of students living off-campus. The university has limited authority to enforce rules beyond the bounds of campus, he said, where students are effectively private citizens.

All but one of the cases involve students who live off campus. One affected student lives in residence and is now in isolation.

Western said it is still committed to providing in-person learning experiences where possible. It estimates that about 25 per cent of courses have an in-person component of some kind this term.

Western’s residences are at a little more than two-thirds occupancy this term, Dr. Shepard said. That’s higher than many schools, which have limited their residences to about 50-per-cent occupancy. But Dr. Shepard said so far residences have done well in following safety protocols and they haven’t been significantly affected by the outbreak.

Eleven new cases were announced Thursday, 10 of them Western students and one a student at Fanshawe College. The outbreak began with five cases announced on Sunday, so it has spread rapidly and is likely to grow, according to public-health officials.

“We are seeing widespread cases of COVID-19 among Western students and although transmission on campus is limited at this time, we continue to work closely with Western administration and the City to ensure that further spread among the student population is limited,” said Dr. Chris Mackie, the local Medical Officer of Health.

The majority of cases belong to three households. Some of those affected had taken part in relatively risky practices such as sharing an e-cigarette. They also visited a number of bars and restaurants in London, including one bar where an employee later contracted the disease.

Most of the cases are connected to the first cluster discovered during the weekend. Another seven are connected to a single house party, Dr. Mackie said.

Western has set up a mobile testing unit on campus that performed more than 1,500 tests last week. Dr. Shepard said he remained optimistic that the situation could be turned around.

“I know our students love to be together – their community spirit is incredibly strong – but the risks are very real,” Dr. Shepard said. “Now is the time to stay in your homes or residences and keep your circles very small.”

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