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COVID-19 cases have quadrupled in Whitman County in just 2 weeks

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 2, 2020

By Emma Epperly and Arielle Dreher The Spokesman-Review

With hundreds of WSU students becoming infected with COVID-19 in the past two weeks, university and health officials are ramping up rapid testing on and around campus.

As of Wednesday afternoon there were 618 confirmed cases in Whitman County, with the vast majority of them under the age of 39. The numbers soared when students began returning to Pullman. Before Aug. 20 there had been 138 coronavirus cases in the county.

Despite WSU’s move to online learning, students moved back to the college town to live in houses and apartments they have already leased.

Parties and gatherings that violate the county’s Phase 3 limits of 10 or fewer people have led to the infections, health experts said.

WSU has sent the Range Health mobile unit to Greek row this week to conduct testing for students, and Cougar Health Services plans to have on-campus testing available to students after Labor Day as well.

State health officials are in daily contact with Whitman County Public Health to ensure it has the testing and contact tracing resources necessary to keep up with the outbreak as more cases are found. So far local health officials have enough resources and support to keep up.

State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy said they are watching the situation closely, with the knowledge that young people largely drove the second wave of infections in Washington state.

“We don’t want illness among younger folks to kick off another wave of illness here, so that’s been the big focus the next few weeks or so: how we can best get ahead of that and prevent transmission on those campuses,” Lofy told reporters on Wednesday.

All of the 59 confirmed cases in Whitman County were in people under the age of 39, except one in a man in his 60s or 70s.

“We are watching the epidemiology closely,” Lofy said.

The majority of Whitman County cases reported in the last two weeks are in college-aged students, and the response has been focused to those areas and that age group.

“We are watching closely as to whether we see spread to other age groups and wider spread in the community,” Lofy said. “Particularly, of course, we’re concerned about older age groups being infected because they are at higher risks of more severe complications.”

To deter students from violating state mask mandates and gathering limits, local law enforcement officials are upping their citations for students hosting parties.

Pullman police officers have issued 10 nuisance party infractions to people hosting parties in the last six days.

Chief Gary Jenkins said in a prepared statement Wednesday he hopes infractions will help reverse the trend of positive cases.

The majority of the infractions occurred on College Hill. A nuisance party infraction is based on a local ordinance that prohibits anyone hosting or allowing a gathering and permitting activities that endanger the health of others at the party, Pullman police said.

A violation is a civil infraction that carries a $250 fine for a first offense, with a minimum $350 fine for second and subsequent offenses.

What is happening in Whitman County has health officials carefully watching other campus environments, including in Spokane County.

Gonzaga and Whitworth Universities are welcoming students back this week and early next week for some in-person learning.

Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz said the universities are doing a lot of work to encourage students to be safe as well as setting up their campuses safely. Nevertheless, he still expects COVID-19 cases to be found on campuses, he told reporters Wednesday.

“I do believe they are doing things as proactively as possible, acknowledging that college students are college students,” Lutz said.

Lutz said he hopes universities and students can learn from their counterparts in Whitman County to avoid the outbreak that continues to occur there.

While virus activity locally has decreased significantly, the Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 61 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the county total to 5,450. One more county resident has died due to COVID-19, bringing the county total to 128 deaths.

Nearly 80% of confirmed cases in Spokane County are considered “recovered” by the health district, however.

There are 33 patients in Spokane hospitals receiving treatment for COVID-19, and 25 of them are county residents.

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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