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Despite move to Phase 2, Whitman County, WSU optimistic ‘things are headed in good direction’

Rising COVID-19 cases at WSU has put moved Whitman County into the more restrictive Phase 2 of the state's fight to control the spread of the coronavirus.  (Dean Hare)

Whitman County is one of three counties in the state to return to more restrictive public health mandates amid rising coronavirus infections of Washington State University students in Pullman, data shows.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement Monday moving Whitman County backward to Phase 2 left WSU and county public health officials saying they are trying to curb the growth of COVID-19.

WSU reported 155 new cases during the past 14 days ending April 10, according to the WSU COVID-19 dashboard. By the same metrics, there were 54 new cases in those two weeks reported throughout the rest of the county.

University spokesman Phil Weiler said part of the response effort includes getting as many students vaccinated as possible before the semester ends May 7. He said university officials estimate approximately 2,000 students have received at least one dose, with that number expected to increase “significantly” after April 15. That’s when the state’s vaccine eligibility criteria include anyone 16 or older.

Weiler said the move to Phase 2 will “impact occupancy rates in student facilities such as the Student Recreation Center on the WSU Pullman campus.”

“We have been communicating with students extensively and we are aggressively locating students who qualify for the vaccine under the current guidelines,” Weiler said in an email. “In the meantime, we continue to work closely with leaders in the Greek community who have placed a voluntary freeze on all gatherings.”

Data used by the state health department to justify the reclassification showed Whitman County’s case rate was 416 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people for the two weeks ending April 2, while the county’s hospitalization rate was 5.9 new hospitalizations per 100,000 people for the week ending March 30.

Overall, 87% of the caseload shown in the county’s latest available 14-day reporting period – from March 28 to April 10 – is attributed to cases out of Pullman. The next closest population center is Colfax with 6%, according to Whitman County Public Health.

“It is what it is,” said Chris Skidmore, director of Whitman County Public Health. “That demographic is part of our county. Even though it’s contained within that demographic for the most part, it is still part of our county residents.”

Phase 2 limits capacity at restaurants, gyms and entertainment establishments to 25%.

Skidmore said the county started seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases around Valentine’s Day mostly among people younger than 29.

Notable events that have taken place since the beginning of February include the Super Bowl, St. Patrick’s Day and the NCAA Basketball Tournament.

“We had a number of events that were in place several weeks apart where we never really recovered from our infection rate,” Skidmore said. “After those events, we saw more spread due to those events. We just kept going up and up.”

More recently, Skidmore said, the county has traced a number of cases associated with spring break-related gatherings. In an attempt to stem the spread, WSU moved earlier this year to remove a traditional spring break from this year’s academic calendar.

“They didn’t have an official spring break,” Skidmore said, “but when you have a hybrid learning model and a lot of those folks are learning remotely, they can be out there on the beach and learning remotely and doing spring break at the same time.”

In response to the spiking number of cases, Whitman County Public Health imposed an order April 2 to limit outdoor social gatherings within Pullman city limits to 10 people or less. Under Phase 3, outdoor social gatherings are limited to 50 people.

Skidmore said the Pullman Police Department has increased patrols in the neighborhoods around WSU, which is where officials have seen many outdoor gatherings.

Since the order was installed, WSU’s Pullman numbers are on a downward trend, down to 155 across a two-week period as of April 10 from as high as 201 on April 5.

WSU President Kirk Schulz and other college leaders penned a letter to the university community late last month, warning students that increased case loads could result in reduced capacities in area restaurants, retail stores and entertainment venues that come with reclassification into an earlier phase.

“We haven’t talked about any further recs and mandates mainly due to the downward trend of cases right now,” Skidmore said. “We’re having very good discussions and right now we’re pretty confident things are headed in a good direction, but we’re going to continue to work with WSU on messaging and help them out in any way we can.”