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‘A major threat to the state of Washington’: Inslee meets with health officials in Pullman as COVID cases climb at WSU

Sept. 10, 2020 Updated Thu., Sept. 10, 2020 at 9:44 p.m.

People placed a COVID-19 face mask over the mouth of the Cougar Pride statue outside Martin Stadium on the Washington State University Pullman campus in April.  (Dean Hare)
People placed a COVID-19 face mask over the mouth of the Cougar Pride statue outside Martin Stadium on the Washington State University Pullman campus in April. (Dean Hare)

Gov. Jay Inslee traveled to Pullman Thursday to meet with local officials as COVID-19 cases continue to soar on the Washington State University campus there.

“They’re partying like there’s no tomorrow,” Inslee said. “And then there’s no tomorrow if people get COVID.”

His meetings were closed to the public, but Inslee said in a news conference beforehand that he wanted to find ways to continue supporting WSU and the city of Pullman as well as take lessons learned to other parts of the state. His office didn’t immediately return a message from The Spokesman-Review on why the meeting was private.

“This is a major threat to the state of Washington right now, on these campuses,” Inslee said of soaring coronavirus infections.

The meeting included WSU President Kirk Schulz, Pullman Mayor Glenn Johnson, Whitman County Public Health Director Troy Henderson, Pullman Regional Hospital CEO Scott Adams, Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins, Secretary of Health John Wiesman, engineer Ed Schweitzer and student representatives, including student government president Curtis Cohen.

Attendees answered questions from the governor and shared what they were each doing to try to prevent viral spread, said Troy Henderson, county public health director.

The purpose was to hear from students and community leaders about lessons learned in Pullman, where COVID-19 cases among college students continue to rise, said Sam Holman, a spokesperson for Inslee.

Whitman County Public Health reported 43 new cases on Thursday, bringing the county’s total to 913. Before Aug. 20, the county had only 138 cases.

The majority of cases are in people under the age of 39. Almost 28% are 19 and younger, and 65% are between the ages of 20 and 39.

The county reported four outbreaks to the state department of health, including Greek housing, dorms, a long-term care facility and one other congregate setting. Outbreaks may only include two or three cases but are required to be reported to the state, Henderson said.

“The reality is we’ve had almost 600 college-aged adults test positive in the last 12 days,” Henderson said.

Many people thought if colleges were remote, there wouldn’t be much spread, Inslee said. However, young people are still socializing and in close contact with one another in dorms, apartments or Greek houses.

Henderson said his biggest concern is community spread. A few cases in the broader community are linked to the college-aged cases, he said. The number is still small, but Henderson said the public health department watches it every day.

“Young adults need to make better decisions about what they’re doing as far as socializing,” he said. “Their actions don’t result in just them (getting sick).”

Thursday’s meeting aimed to helpcommunity leaders and Inslee hear from students, who likely have a better idea of how to reach their peers. The 18-23 demographic can be difficult for older people to reach, Henderson said, so a peer-to-peer approach is the best way to improve their behavior.

Pullman Mayor Glenn Johnson said he hopes the student representatives in the meeting will begin communicating with other students.

“We need to have more responsibility on the part of the students,” he said. “They need to remember this is a very serious illness.”

Johnson said he hopes Pullman’s cautionary tale will resonate in other parts of the state.

“We are all working together to get a handle on this,” Johnson said.

It’s very possible other college towns will see similar spikes as their students return, Holman said.

One of the biggest lessons Pullman has learned is to test every student early, Johnson said, adding he encouraged other universities not to wait until a few weeks into the semester like WSU did.

The university announced last week that it would provide free tests to students in multiple locations near campus, including Cougar Health Services and a mobile National Guard site currently at Valley Road Playfields.

Inslee and other attendees also praised the Pullman Police Department. The department has started issuing citations for those who host parties and fail to socially distance or wear a mask.

Schulz said in a statement that he appreciated Inslee’s support and interest in learning more about the university’s ongoing efforts.

“The steps we’re taking and the strong partnerships we’ve forged over the past several months at the local, state and federal levels are critical to our overall success in helping contain this global pandemic,” his statement reads.

Here’s a look at the latest local case numbers:

The Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 81 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, a noteworthy daily jump and the largest one-day count recorded since Aug. 8.

There have been 5,757 cases in Spokane County, but 82% of those cases the health district considers “recovered,” or 28 days beyond the onset of their illness and without hospitalization.

Currently, 33 patients are being treated for the virus in Spokane hospitals, and 26 of them are county residents.

Another resident died from COVID-19, bringing the number of deaths due to the virus in Spokane County to 139.

The Panhandle Health District reported 29 new cases on Thursday, and there are 271 active cases in the five-county region. There are nine Panhandle residents hospitalized with the virus, and 51 deaths due to COVID-19 recorded in the county.

Spokesman-Review reporters Chad Sokol and Arielle Dreher contributed to this report.

Laurel Demkovich'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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