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Governor announces tightened COVID-19 guidelines for universities and colleges

Gov. Jay Inslee announced tighter restrictions on colleges and universities on Tuesday in hopes of cutting down virus transmission across college campuses in Washington state.

The governor said there have been 35 outbreaks at colleges and universities statewide, accounting for more than 800 cases of COVID-19.

The new proclamation for colleges and universities requires students to wear masks at all times except in their dorm or sleeping rooms. No more than two people can sleep in a room together in the new guidance, and visitors are limited to one per room, with masking and distancing.

“We have certainly learned some lessons regarding the return to campus instruction and off-site instruction, and we’ve seen a significant increase in the COVID infections around congregate living quarters and social gatherings, particularly around sororities and fraternities,” Inslee told reporters Tuesday.

The governor’s new guidance restricts gatherings on college campuses to five people, including in common areas on campus.

“We need to get it under control; it’s part of a phenomenon called fall,” Inslee said.

The governor’s new guidance also requires universities to provide quarantine or isolation facilities for students living in Greek system houses and off-campus housing, as well as those living in dorms, if they do not have a place to isolate themselves.

The university is allowed to charge students or employees who need those isolation facilities or support services, based on its policies for students with financial aid or needs.

There have been outbreaks in the Greek systems at both Washington State University and the University of Washington. In the last month, there were also cases connected to student housing at Eastern Washington University.

“When you get this big outbreak at fraternity, this is a community problem stemming from some of these congregate living facilities,” Inslee said.

Whitman County Public Health officials confirmed 68 new COVID-19 cases over the weekend and seven on Tuesday. Outbreaks initially concentrated and connected to WSU students gathering in the Greek system and off campus led to outbreaks elsewhere in Pullman and the county.

Seven residents, all over 60, have died from the virus in Whitman County, and the majority of residents who have had to be hospitalized for the virus also are over 60.

The governor said he is not currently considering broader restrictions for state residents but did indicate that personal gatherings are contributing to increasing case counts statewide. He emphasized the need for people to wear masks when they are gathering in private and maintain physical distance.

“The more we gather, the longer those gatherings are, the more people there are, the higher the risk of spreading COVID-19,” Deputy Secretary of Health Lacy Fehrenbach said on Tuesday.

State health officials are concerned about a “fall surge” of cases and continue to ask residents to adhere to guidance based on their county’s phase.

Virus transmission continues to increase in the Inland Northwest. On Tuesday, the Panhandle Health District confirmed 141 new cases and another death from the virus. There are 33 residents from the five-county region hospitalized.

Some outbreaks are tied to schools and places of worship. There are 162 cases that the Panhandle Health District has connected to churches in the five-county region, as of October 20.

The Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 52 new cases on Tuesday, and another resident died from the virus.

There are 46 patients at Spokane hospitals receiving treatment for the virus, and 40 of them are Spokane County residents.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories 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.