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WSU sends alert of substantial increase in COVID-19 cases in young adults

UPDATED: Fri., Aug. 21, 2020

Bryan Clock Tower glows at dawn on Saturday, Sep 17, 2016, on WSU's Campus in Pullman. The university is concerned about growing numbers of coronavirus cases in Pullman as students return to the city for the start of classes. Many students are living in off-campus housing as classes are online only.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND)
Bryan Clock Tower glows at dawn on Saturday, Sep 17, 2016, on WSU's Campus in Pullman. The university is concerned about growing numbers of coronavirus cases in Pullman as students return to the city for the start of classes. Many students are living in off-campus housing as classes are online only. (TYLER TJOMSLAND)

Three days before fall classes begin, Washington State University officials warned students and staff of a “substantial increase” in COVID-19 cases in Pullman among people ages 18 to 24.

Whitman County Public Health District informed the university they found roughly 30 new cases in Pullman on Friday, said WSU Vice President of Communications Phil Weiler. The county had reported fewer than 150 total COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic.

“It’s disturbing,” Weiler said. “This is the wake-up call, folks. We need to follow the requirements.”

Despite moving to conduct almost all classes online during the fall semester, Pullman has seen an influx of students in the last week, Weiler said.

The university’s on-campus housing is currently at 15% capacity, allowing only for students in dire circumstances to stay, Weiler said.

WSU doesn’t track students in off-campus housing, he added, but more cars on the road have led to speculation.

The university worked with local landlords to allow flexibility for students to get out of leases, but some students in off-campus housing have been trapped in their agreements, he said.

Parties prompted the city’s police department to announce this week it would crack down on violations of Gov. Jay Inslee’s pandemic regulations as Washington State University students return to town.

Violating an order issued by the state Board of Health or by local health officials is considered a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $100 and/or 90 days in jail. People allowing a party or gathering with more than 10 people or a lack of face masks are committing a Class 2 civil infraction punishable by a $250 fine.

Pullman police have identified more than 90 calls or complaints regarding suspected violations of COVID-19 public health mandates since April with reports of unauthorized social gatherings increasing in recent weeks, according to records gathered by the Whitman County Watch, a news outlet run by a former WSU journalism advisor.

More than half of those calls came in April, but reports have picked up again in August. Pullman police responded to 14 complaints of loud or crowded gatherings this month, 12 on College Hill, according to the records.

Weiler said the university sent the alert about the spike on COVID-19 cases on Friday in hopes of deterring students planning to party that night. He said students might not recognize the strain growing case numbers could have in Pullman.

“While Pullman has a great health care system in normal times, this is not a normal time,” Weiler said.

Pullman Regional Hospital only has 25 beds available for a community of 34,000, based on census estimates. The hospital announced in April it would cut all employees’ pay by 25% due to revenue losses from canceled elective surgeries.

“I understand the desire to get together in a group, particularly because it’s been five months since we went to that distance learning environment,” Weiler said. “But we’re not done with this virus yet. We need to see this through to the end.”

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