TORONTO -- Students who flout COVID-19 guidelines may face “significant penalties” as Canadian universities work to crack down on so-called “superspreader” events that officials say put community health at risk.

The stern warning from university officials comes after several reports of post-secondary students testing positive for the novel coronavirus at campuses across the country, including one declaration of a community outbreak linked to Western University in London, Ont.

On Thursday, Western University halted most non-academic activities on campus after 28 students tested positive for COVID-19.

Health officials have linked the majority of those cases to three households where individuals gathered at local restaurants and a night club, sharing drinks and e-cigarettes in some cases.

Another seven cases are believed to be associated with a single house party, according to officials.

“To those who are part of the problem, I cannot put it any more plainly. If this continues, you are going to kill someone,” London mayor Ed Holder said Thursday, warning that those caught breaking the rules may be subject to fines.

“Should daily case counts remain this high for a sustained period, community spread is near certainty. And it’s a matter of when not if somebody dies.”

Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., has also threatened to discipline students caught partying, warning that those caught "flagrantly" disregarding public health measures will be formally reviewed.

Should they be found guilty of violating the student code of conduct, officials say they face the possibility of being expelled.

“We’ve really tried, especially with young adults, a modicum of suggestion that they should be careful about what they do, [and] realizing that their actions can have an impact out in the community,” Dr. Gerald Evans, chair in the division of infectious diseases at Queen’s University, told CTV’s Your Morning Friday.

“The problem that we’ve had is that doesn’t seem to be working. And it’s not surprising.”

Evans says, although there are a significant number of students who do follow public health guidelines, those who skirt the rules are risking the health of those within their community.

“There’s good evidence from Spain, France and Austria that show that once it circulates in large numbers in 20-year-olds, it quickly emerges into the community in general. It then percolates up into the older age groups, and that’s where we know this disease has significant, dramatic impacts on mortality, hospitalization and very serious illness,” he said.

“We’re asking our young people to recognize the effect that can have. Even though they can feel that they’re invulnerable, the community is vulnerable.”

Université Sainte-Anne, a small francophone university in Church Point, N.S., already expelled a student for disobeying its COVID-19 Code of Conduct, student code of conduct and public health measures.

The student tested positive for COVID-19 after failing to self-isolate upon arriving in Nova Scotia, a requirement for those arriving from outside the Atlantic bubble.

In the U.S., dozens of universities have emerged as virus hot spots thanks to cramped dormitories and through off-campus parties that have been blamed for thousands of cases.

The surge has prompted some universities to send students home and cancel in-person instruction for the rest of the term.

“I’ve been very sympathetic to the fact that this pandemic has really affected young adults,” Evans noted.

“Your twenties are a period of time in life when you do most of your socialization and to have to curtail that for a long period of time I’m sure is difficult for students.”

Evans hopes that students who are proactive about public health measures will encourage their friends to follow suit, though he acknowledges the difficulties of peer pressure.

“Frankly, I think a large percentage of students are extremely responsible,” he noted.

“Getting that small percentage of students who are still being, and I’ll say reckless, about their behaviour is something that we need to work on.” 

'SHAME AND BLAME WON'T WORK'

But some say this type of messaging misses the mark.

Western University graduate Lauren Holmes, 22, says government and health officials are missing the mark by “blaming and shaming” students for isolated outbreaks, and criticizes the government for what she describes as a reactive strategy doesn’t sit kindly with students.

“The government is pushing blame on the youth instead of themselves,” Holmes told CTVNews.ca by phone Friday.

“They’ve known for months that university and college students were going back in September, that they would be socializing and partying, so they could have gone ahead with a targeted campaign… but they chose not to invest any time and money to do this.”

Holmes has repeatedly lobbied the Ontario government to include more positive, youth-targeted messages in their COVID-19 campaigns but has not received a response.

In March, she launched her own website, PartyResponsibly.ca, raising awareness about responsible partying behaviour amid the pandemic. The website offers a breakdown of social gathering limitations by province, and acts as the equivalent of a "drink responsibly" campaign.

“I thought it would make sense to make a website and try and promote gathering and partying responsibly in a way that could resonate with youth, because the messaging right now isn’t resonating,” she explained.

“Shaming and blaming is not going to work.”

With files from The Associated Press