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More than 70 COVID-19 cases confirmed in Whitman County in just four days, driven by young adults returning to Pullman

UPDATED: Mon., Aug. 24, 2020

Despite Washington State University offering courses remotely, college students returning to Pullman have led to a near doubling of Whitman County’s COVID-19 case count in just four days.

There have been 74 confirmed new cases since Friday. Just a week earlier, the county had days with no new cases at all and a rolling average of one new confirmed case per day.

The spike is due to the virus spreading among young adults, who are gathering and throwing parties, Troy Henderson, director of Whitman County Public Health, said.

“It’s young adults making poor choices,” he said.

One of the infected students was associated with a Greek-life gathering, making testing and contact tracing a challenge.

Henderson said the spike in new cases is primarily in off-campus housing. Some people who have recently tested positive told health officials that they attended parties with large numbers of people, making it next to impossible for them to identify every person who might have been exposed to a person who tested positive.

Henderson said he expects more cases to be confirmed in the coming days. He said health officials have concerns about how the outbreaks will affect the broader community.

When the viral load is high in a community, it increases the likelihood that it might make its way to vulnerable residents, Henderson said. This trend has been seen throughout the pandemic, including in Spokane County, where higher incidence rates in the community have been followed by outbreaks in long-term care facilities.

All of the infected people counted are stable and in isolation with their symptoms.

COVID-19 can have more serious side effects and lead to hospitalization for older age groups, however, and Henderson said they do not yet know how much outbreaks among young people will affect year-round Pullman residents.

Due to Pullman’s small size and setting , the recent jump in COVID-19 cases means that grocery stores, restaurants and gas stations where students and other Pullman residents could interact must take safety precautions seriously, Henderson noted.

Health officials are asking students to adhere to statewide masking mandates and gathering limits, which for Whitman County is no more than 10 people, when distancing and masking are in place.

“This is a tough demographic to try to influence their behavior,” Henderson said. “So far, we have not found a real successful way to do that.”

In Spokane, new students are set to arrive at Gonzaga University this week and at Whitworth University during Labor Day weekend. Returning students are scheduled to return soon after new students arrive at both universities to stagger the number of visitors on-campus.

Spokane County Health Officer Bob Lutz said he has been in conversation with the local universities where students will attend in-person classes regularly, conducting site visits and looking at their plans. Both Gonzaga and Whitworth have asked students to quarantine at home for a week before moving to campus, and both universities are having students monitor their health with apps this semester.

Lutz said that based on his conversations with Gonzaga and Whitworth officials, both schools are “trying to work with their students to make sure they don’t experience the kinds of things they are seeing at other universities, like Washington State University, and nationally.”

“I am hopeful and optimistic that what we’re seeing in Whitman County and Pullman will not happen here,” Lutz said.

Lutz said he expects that the universities will notify the health district of any cases.

“I think we’ve got great working relationships with both the universities, and they’ll be reaching out to us,” he said.

Gonzaga and Whitworth have COVID-19 response teams and contact tracing as a part of their back-to-school guidance plans for students.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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