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As college students drive up COVID-19 case counts in Pullman, Spokane County leaders wonder if we’re next

UPDATED: Tue., Sept. 1, 2020

A reader board on the Beasley Coliseum promotes masks on the first day of school, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Pullman.  (DAN PELLE)
A reader board on the Beasley Coliseum promotes masks on the first day of school, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Pullman. (DAN PELLE)
By Rebecca White and Arielle Dreher The Spokesman-Review

Washington State University is rushing to offer COVID-19 testing for students amid hundreds of cases reported among college students who have returned to Pullman in recent weeks.

Whitman County Public Health has reported about 300 new cases in the past week, all in teenagers and young adults under the age of 39.

The county has a test positivity rate of 22%, according to the most recent data available. As of Monday, there are now 509 confirmed cases in Whitman County. The majority of the infections are in Pullman, where many college students have returned to off-campus housing after being unable to get out of leases despite courses being offered remotely for the fall semester.

About 90% of the county’s cases are in people under the age of 39. One of the first outbreaks reported was in a Greek-life setting, where contact tracing was nearly impossible, and since then, case counts have risen in Pullman.

The Range Health mobile unit, an initiative of WSU Health Sciences in Spokane to offer medical access to rural parts of the state, will head to Pullman this week to offer testing on Greek row from Wednesday through Friday, WSU President Kirk Schulz said.

The university also plans to offer testing on-campus after Labor Day through Cougar Health Services in outdoor testing tents on-campus. Schulz credited local health care providers at Palouse Medical Group and Pullman Regional Hospital for offering testing for students to date, and he said WSU’s efforts will help increase the region’s testing capacity.

“What we’re trying to do is be innovative and creative in how we talk with our students, and frankly, we’re trying to partner together with our students to say, ‘Hey it’s not just about you, it’s about the people around you,’” Schulz said. “And I think that’s an important message that we need to continue all semester.”

He said that messaging and reminders to students will continue throughout the 14-week semester, even after this wave of virus cases has passed. Continuing to offer testing is also a part of that strategy. In a partnership with Incyte Diagnostics, WSU is running COVID-19 samples at their animal diagnostics laboratory in Pullman to provide quick turnaround times for COVID-19 tests.

“There’s plenty of testing available,” Schulz said. “We just want to make sure it’s convenient and get that turnaround time as quickly as we can.”

The Pullman Police Department said it is working with WSU to enforce the gathering limit in Whitman County as well as the statewide mask mandate. The university can open student conduct proceedings based on information the police department discloses.

Spokane County commissioners are hoping to take steps to ensure the spike in cases in Whitman County doesn’t occur in Spokane County when college students return.

Whitworth and Gonzaga universities, which are opening for in-person classes, previously requested a combined $6 million from the county’s $90 million allotment in CARES funding to set up their own isolation facility, conduct contact tracing and purchase additional technology, cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment.

Commissioners denied their request, saying they did not want to fund programs for two private universities that they were already providing for the entire community. They reconsidered their decision Monday, citing the large spike of cases in WSU students.

County Commissioner Al French said the county could possibly cover sanitizer and PPE for universities, but would likely not cover larger COVID-19 expenses the county has already invested in, such as an isolation facility. He said the funds would likely be expanded to Eastern Washington University, WSU Spokane’s campus and the both the community colleges as well.

“Ultimately what we want to do is lower the infection rate for the county,” he said. “What we saw in Whitman County, we truly don’t want that to happen here.”

The Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 35 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, and five more residents died from the virus during the weekend, bringing the total number of deaths due to COVID-19 in the county to 125.

There are 43 patients in Spokane hospitals being treated for the virus, and 32 of them are county residents. There have been 5,357 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in Spokane County. About 78% have recovered, the health district estimated.

While Spokane County appears to be on the decline in terms of virus activity in the community, the most recent incidence rate recorded is 109 cases per 100,000 in the community. This rate is still too high for health officials to ease recommendations regarding students returning to the classroom for instruction.

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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