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Gonzaga leaders encourage students to get tested, follow virus protocols following March Madness games

UPDATED: Thu., April 8, 2021

Celebrating Gonzaga students gather outside of Jack and Dan’s Tavern after the Zags defeated UCLA 93-90 in overtime on Saturday to advance to the NCAA Tournament final.  (COLIN MULVANY)
Celebrating Gonzaga students gather outside of Jack and Dan’s Tavern after the Zags defeated UCLA 93-90 in overtime on Saturday to advance to the NCAA Tournament final. (COLIN MULVANY)

It’s the ideal scenario for COVID-19: young adults, who have not had access to vaccines yet, cramming into bars, restaurants and watch parties as the Gonzaga men’s basketball team played for the national championship.

Add in spring breaks and big parties, and now Gonzaga University’s leaders are preparing for a potential surge in virus cases in the coming weeks.

The campus clinic has expanded COVID-19 testing hours, including more walk-up availability . Students who participated in after parties after the Elite Eight game were encouraged to get tested, said Taylor Jordan, the university COVID-19 campus coordinator. 

“Throughout the week our contact tracers will be tracing out cases and quarantining students; we’ve got some backup help with Spokane Regional Health District to be prepared in case we have an unprecedented spike, to get to those new cases as quickly as possible,” she said.

Gonzaga kept COVID-19 case counts low all last fall and into the new year, with less than 40 cases confirmed per week throughout the third wave and surge of local COVID activity in the fall and winter, according to university data. 

Often , Jordan said, students who test positive are already in quarantine when they get their call from contact tracers.

The university’s COVID trends stayed solid until mid-March, when more than 40 new cases were confirmed each week, predominantly in students living off-campus.

There are currently 58 students who have tested positive for COVID-19. Consistent with the university’s experience during the pandemic, the majority of current virus cases are in off-campus students.

The university’s COVID team has traced the majority of cases to bars and restaurants, as well as multi-household gatherings, Jordan said. More recently, cases have been traced to March Madness watch parties .

While Gonzaga leaders are using a variety of messages to encourage students to get tested and follow virus protocols, Vice Provost for Student Affairs Kent Porterfield said on-campus transmission has remained low or nonexistent in classrooms, dining halls or other on-campus activities. 

“We know we can have students on campus following our COVID rules when we’re providing structure and supervision,” Porterfield said, noting that masks come off in bars along Hamilton or at gatherings . 

When asked about a potential lockdown or having virtual-only classes to contain the spread, Porterfield said the university still has the capacity to manage transmission across its student body.

“We’re able to keep up,” he said. “We have quarantine and isolation housing, and haven’t come close to reaching capacity.”

Only 12 of the 52 isolation beds at the university are in use. There are 96 quarantine beds  on campus, and only six of 67 off-site quarantine beds are full. 

Porterfield said university leaders were meeting on Wednesday afternoon to discuss how they might pause or limit social activities, especially with graduation just around the corner.

“You want to react, not overreact,” he said. “To be vigilant, but not alarmist.” 

If the Final Four and National Championship games turn out to cause a surge in COVID-19 cases, testing will show that . If the university needs help from the health district, they can get assistance.

Gonzaga is not responsible for the majority of cases in Spokane County in the last few weeks, and the recent increase in COVID-19 cases at the university is a part of the recent case-trends locally and nationwide.

Young adults, particularly teenagers and residents in their 20s, have reversed the county’s promising trends, as case counts continue to increase among them.

In five days, the county will be evaluated for its COVID-19 progress , which could mean a return to Phase 2 of the governor’s reopening plan, depending on what the two-week snapshot looks like on Monday. The county is currently in the less restrictive Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan.

Currently, Spokane County has a two-week case rate of 203 cases per 100,000 residents, according to health district data. If that number stays at or above 200 by Monday, the county will go back to Phase 2.

“That is a bit of a cause for concern for us as a community,” Spokane County Interim Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez told reporters Wednesday.

State health officials told reporters there is a high likelihood that a handful of counties will go back to Phase 2 Monday.

“We will unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, have to take the appropriate action when we believe people are at risk because of case rates or other metrics,” State Secretary of Health Umair Shah said Wednesday. “If we have to dial back, we’ll have to do that.”

While state residents 65 and older are testing positive and being hospitalized at decreasing rates, young adults in the state are on the opposite trajectory. Case rates and hospitalizations in younger adults are on the rise in several counties statewide.

On April 15, all Washington residents 16 and older will be eligible to get vaccinated , which health officials hope will help stymie the current trends.

“I do think next week when the vaccine is available, we need to encourage this age group, which is driving the pandemic, to get vaccinated,” Acting State Health Officer Dr. Scott Lindquist said.

Locally, there are lots of vaccine appointments open to eligible residents.

MultiCare has more than 500 first- and second-dose appointments available at its vaccine clinic on Thursday and Friday for eligible residents. 

More vaccine appointments can be found through the state’s vaccine locator website or by calling (800) 525-0127, then pressing #.

Here’s a look at local numbers:

The Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 104 new virus cases on Wednesday and reported an adjusted number of deaths in the county due to COVID-19 to 586.

The district is reviewing and reconciling death data with the Department of Health, causing numbers to fluctuate.

There are 41 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Spokane hospitals.

The Panhandle Health District confirmed 35 new cases on Wednesday and one additional death.

There have been 287 Panhandle residents who died from the virus.

Currently, 31 Panhandle residents are hospitalized with the virus.

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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