COVID-19 case numbers surge after steady decline

University officials say Whitman County will likely move down to Phase 2, possibly Phase 1; county positivity rate above five percent state guideline



Before this past weekend, contact tracers had traced COVID-19 spread to two social events that occurred around mid-February.

JAYCE CARRAL, Evergreen reporter

Positive COVID-19 cases among WSU students were steadily declining after March 15, but cases surged again on Saturday after WSU officials issued a letter to all students on Friday telling them to “do better.” 

The county’s positivity rate was 3.7 percent on Friday, said Phil Weiler, WSU vice president for marketing and communications. It is now at 7.4 percent, which is over the governor’s 5 percent guideline for remaining in Phase 3 of reopening. 

“That’s the threshold to say that you’ve got a handle on the illness in your community,” Weiler said. “We’re above that threshold; we are really on the precipice of potentially having a serious outbreak.” 

This will be the fourth surge in cases among WSU students and faculty, and it is the second largest, he said. 

Positive COVID-19 cases among WSU students decreased from 233 to 147 during March 15-26, according to the WSU COVID-19 Dashboard. Positive cases were rising between Feb. 15 to March 15, but before that, positive cases had not risen above 200 since early October. 

Before this past weekend, contact tracers had traced COVID-19 spread to two social events that occurred around mid-February, Weiler said. 

It is likely social events that occurred last week around St. Patrick’s Day, which was a university-wide mental health day, will result in more positive cases, he said. 

“Anecdotally, we’ve heard stories about groups … gathering in homes, we saw groups gathering at restaurants across the town … across the community,” he said. “This is not just students, this is faculty and staff … and members of the community.” 

WSU administration issued a letter to all students on Friday, stating “student gatherings and parties … have directly resulted in an increase in COVID-19 cases.”

Students are prohibited from attending group gatherings, according to the letter. Fraternities and sororities are also not allowed to hold social gatherings. 

Weiler said he has not seen any response to the letter from students. 

“I feel like we are getting complacent as a society,” Weiler said. “And I’m not pointing my finger at students, I’m really pointing the finger at America as a whole.” 

Students must wear masks and stay home if they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, according to the letter. 

Weiler said there have been instances of people displaying COVID-19 symptoms that they mistakenly thought were spring allergies or a regular cold. 

Students are also warned that high case numbers may lead to Whitman County going down to Phase 2 in its reopening process. This would close facilities like University Recreation and the Compton Union Building, according to the letter. 

Weiler said it is probable that Whitman County will move down to Phase 2 or possibly even Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan. 

“I think it’s almost impossible for Whitman County to stay in Phase 3 based on the outbreak we’ve seen,” he said. 

Weiler said he is concerned positive case numbers will continue to increase in April. 

He said it is important for students to remain vigilant because the semester will end soon and they will be traveling back home. 

“I think that’s a real worry, that we could end up spreading it beyond Whitman County,” he said.