WSU epicenter of new COVID-19 outbreak in Pullman; National Guard to help with virus testing

Washington State University is the epicenter of COVID-19 cases that are spiking, as the Pullman area is seeing one of the highest numbers of cases per capita in the nation as of Tuesday.

It is so much of a concern that the National Guard has been called in to help.

According to the Whitman County Health Department, in the past 9 days, the community has seen 387 cases compared to 172 cases total in the previous 5 months combined.

Although WSU is doing remote lessons only, many students have returned to the community and some are partying like normal. The Pullman police chief said they are now citing students with fines.

Farrin Johnson, a Bellevue native living in private housing in WSU, said the start to her senior year is nothing like she could have ever imagined.

“I haven’t been seeing people and understanding the risk of being here,” said Johnson.

Despite remote lessons, Johnson said many students are back because they signed leases for private housing before they knew what the final plan was going to be this fall.

“So now they are stuck in these leases they can’t get out of and I wouldn’t want to be paying for something that I wouldn’t be living at,” Johnson said.

As a leader on the Panhellenic Council that governs all 14 sororities at WSU, Johnson is calling on students to take the situation seriously.

“We are leaders in our community so how can we step up right now to ensure that the Wazzu community is staying safe.

Johnson said it's quiet around campus and many like her are adhering to social distancing rules, but some students are not.

Police Chief Gary Jenkins said his department has issued 10 fines so far to students hosting parties. Jenkins said dozens tend to gather at events with no masks. He said it’s not just fraternity and sorority members holding off-campus parties.

 “One that was over 50, another that was over 20,” Jenkins said.

The first civil infraction is $250 and then it goes up to $500 for the second offense.

 The biggest concern is that the concentration of cases involving students will spread to the broader community.

“We are hearing from residents that they are afraid to go out in the community, they are afraid to go to the stores and to the gas stations and elsewhere,” Jenkins said.

WSU says a mobile health unit will arrive at the campus on Wednesday to help with testing, to bridge the gap until they can establish a fixed site. National Guard members will also be ready on campus on Tuesday after Labor Day weekend to help with testing.  

The Whitman County Health Department will be in charge of ramping up contact tracing capabilities.

“We are glad our community members are getting tested and they are reaching out to medical professionals,” Johnson said.

For anyone leaving campus now to go home, Johnson said that's more of a reason to get tested first.

“Thinking about how Pullman is a riskier area to be in right now and if they are going to go home think about mitigating the spread to other areas of the state,” Johnson said.

If the spread is not contained, there could be a possibility that nearby businesses and restaurants could face more capacity restrictions, something that is hurting many businesses already.