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As students return to Gonzaga and Whitworth, health officer urges personal responsibility

UPDATED: Tue., Aug. 18, 2020

Gonzaga University's administration building is seen on Friday, Aug. 31, 2018. The Spokane County commissioners have rejected a joint request from Gonzaga and Whitworth University for more than $6 million in federal coronavirus assistance, while both schools seek to reopen their campuses and resume in-person classes this fall.  (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga University's administration building is seen on Friday, Aug. 31, 2018. The Spokane County commissioners have rejected a joint request from Gonzaga and Whitworth University for more than $6 million in federal coronavirus assistance, while both schools seek to reopen their campuses and resume in-person classes this fall. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane’s two private universities – Gonzaga and Whitworth – are welcoming thousands of students back onto their campuses this fall, even as other universities move nearly all classes online and close most of their residence halls to prevent outbreaks of the novel coronavirus.

Both schools say they have invested in COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and other measures to limit the health effects of the pandemic, but Spokane County’s health officer, Dr. Bob Lutz, said it’s inevitable that some students will become infected. He and other experts are urging students to behave responsibly, especially if they choose to socialize with peers.

Lutz and Mark Springer, an epidemiologist with the Spokane Regional Health District, have been working with Gonzaga and Whitworth to develop and implement their reopening plans, which are heavily focused on in-person instruction but will involve some remote learning.

Both schools “are very aware of the concerns of bringing young people back into a community that has a high incidence rate of disease,” Lutz said. “We’ve expressed our concerns, but we also believe that they’re taking this responsibly and really trying to impart leadership and responsibility on the students.”

Lutz said he’s most concerned about students’ social interactions outside of classrooms, which will be somewhat controlled settings with mask requirements and physical distancing.

Another concern is that many students will live in dorms with roommates.

“Dormitories are a concern for us because there’s only so much intermingling that you can prevent,” Lutz said.

Gonzaga and Whitworth plan to treat dorm rooms and campus apartments as household units, meaning students won’t be required to wear masks in their own living spaces. Lutz said students will be encouraged to limit social interactions to the others on their dormitory floors and to small, personally selected friend groups.

Lutz noted that Spokane’s COVID-19 case counts have been consistently high, and he’s concerned about bringing together groups of students in their late teens and 20s, who are most likely to carry the virus. According to health district data updated on Friday, people in their 20s account for 14.8% of the county’s population but 26.9% of the county’s coronavirus infections.

While young people might be less likely to die or become severely ill with COVID-19, more infections mean a higher chance the virus will spread to vulnerable older adults.

“Gonzaga, I think, gave a little bit more thought to going remote-only, but the wishes of the students and the parents to have in-person instruction were significant,” Lutz said. “Whitworth always planned, at least in my conversations with them, on bringing the kids back. So much, they believe, of the college experience is predicated on having that in-person experience.”

In an email Friday, Gonzaga spokeswoman Mary Joan Hahn said the university has waived its on-campus housing requirement for first- and second-year students. The university anticipates roughly 2,000 students living in campus residence halls and apartments this fall, down about 30% from last fall.

“This will allow a significant number of students to have their own room, but numerous students will have a roommate in a double-occupancy residence hall room,” she said.

Whitworth, meanwhile, anticipates about 1,180 students living on campus this fall, said Trisha Coder, a university spokeswoman. Many will live together as roommates.

“Our dorm situation is as it would be in a normal year,” said Jon Bosh, Whitworth’s assistant athletic director and COVID-19 response coordinator.

Both universities will leave some dorms empty for students who may need to isolate or quarantine following a COVID-19 diagnosis or exposure to the virus.

Hahn said Gonzaga has hired a team of four contact tracers and contracted with two local medical laboratories to conduct “rapid-turnaround” COVID-19 tests. The university plans to conduct targeted testing of students who present symptoms, as well as a long-term surveillance testing of random samplings of students.

Hahn said the first tests would be administered Sunday to about 100 student leaders and resident assistants who have arrived on campus early. Gonzaga freshmen are scheduled to start moving in on Aug. 26, and most returning students are scheduled to start on Aug. 29.

Whitworth has hired two full-time contact tracers and contracted with one local lab to conduct testing, Bosh said.

“Our health center has the ability to do the testing, but it’s very likely that we’re going to have someone from this local lab on campus to do any signs and symptoms testing,” Bosh said.

The lab should provide test results within 24 to 48 hours, he said.

Whitworth students will begin moving into residence halls the first weekend of September. Bosh said they’ll use a smartphone app called LiveSafe to indicate whether they are experiencing symptoms each day. Those who indicate feeling sick will be contacted by contact tracers or other health workers, he said.

Bosh said Whitworth officials have communicated with the health district at least once a week since May.

“They’ve reviewed all of our plans, from classrooms to living situations to our isolation and quarantine to whatever else,” Bosh said. “And we continue to refine those based off of suggestions from them.”

Hahn said the health district has helped Gonzaga develop and implement its plan at “every step of the way.”

“GU staff have been meeting weekly with the SRHD professionals, who have considered the protective measures that have been put in place,” Hahn said. “Where the SRHD has provided specific guidance on any matter, we are following it.”

Lutz said the universities have taken another positive step by splitting up new-student orientation groups and staggering campus tours to avoid large gatherings.

An outbreak at the University of Washington in early July highlighted the difficulty of containing the virus among college students eager for social interaction. At least 117 students living in 15 UW fraternity houses over the summer tested positive for the virus, as did another four students who had visited the fraternities but didn’t live in them, the Seattle Times reported.

Gonzaga and Whitworth are taking a drastically different approach than Washington’s public universities.

Washington State University planned to reopen its campuses and offer some in-person instruction this fall but recently reversed course, deciding to keep nearly all classes online and closing its residence halls to most students. Eastern Washington University also is keeping most courses online and has allowed students to live alone in dorm rooms that typically house two people.

The University of Idaho, which has reopened its main campus in Moscow, announced Friday that it has confirmed 34 cases of COVID-19 since it began testing students, faculty and staff members in late July. The UI said it had received 2,371 test results, and some of the 34 people who tested positive already had completed a period of isolation and were no longer infectious.

The UI has been working to establish a testing lab on campus with help from nearby Gritman Medical Center but has yet to receive final certification to begin processing samples. Test results will take several days until the UI lab is operational, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News reported.

With his authority as Spokane County’s top public health official, Lutz said he could take the “draconian” step of halting universities’ reopening plans, but he emphasized that Gonzaga and Whitworth have been responsive to the health district’s concerns and recommendations.

During a news conference Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee said state officials would continue to defer many decisions about reopening to the universities so long as they meet strict hygiene standards. He said officials are closely monitoring the state’s “R-naught” value – the average number of times an infected Washingtonian transmits the coronavirus to someone else.

“We’ve seen that we are now on the razor’s edge,” Inslee said. “We hope we might’ve gotten this down to an R-naught of 1, but if that goes up just a tick, the transmission rate will go up and we’ll have more deaths in the state of Washington.”

Inslee noted that in “high-risk” areas with 75 or more coronavirus infections per 100,000 residents, his office has urged K-12 school districts to keep on-site instruction to a minimum.

“I think that probably is a general concept that would apply to colleges as well, but I have not made a specific recommendation in that regard,” he said.

“We’re very concerned about Spokane right now, about the course of the pandemic there. There’s quite a number of places where we have high concentrations (of cases) and I hope people are taking that very seriously.”

S-R reporter Jim Camden contributed reporting from Olympia.

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