CWU students account for half of Kittitas County’s current COVID-19 cases, officials say

Cwu Masks
Courtesy: CWU

ELLENSBURG, Wash. —  Central Washington University students are testing positive for COVID-19 at increasing rates and now account for more than half of the active cases countywide.

As of Tuesday evening, Kittitas County reported having 62 active cases, with 45 of those cases being attributed to CWU students.

Since the university reopened Sept. 9, more than 140 students have tested positive for the virus — a number officials attribute to the social activities of some off-campus students.

“On any given week, if we were to average it, it’s probably two thirds off-campus, a third on-campus,” said Gregg Heinselman, Dean of Student Success at CWU.

Heinselman said off-campus students may be unclear about the university’s COVID-19 protocols, including that rules about wearing face masks among fellow students still apply when gathering off-campus.

“They’re getting COVID-fatigued,” Heinselman said. “They’re in a population, in an age group, that wants to hang out. They want to socialize. They want to engage.”

Heinselman said the university is aware that some students continue to host events off-campus — some following protocols and some not.

Whenever the Ellensburg Police Department respond to a noise complaint or call about a party involving CWU students, Heinselman said the university receives a copy of the police report. He said in the five weeks since school started back up, police have responded to somewhere between 15 and 20 violations.

Another factor in the transmission between off-campus students is the density of their housing situations — a problem officials have worked to remedy within the residence halls.

Heinselman said while those halls are usually at capacity, they’ve worked hard to cut down on that kind of crowding. The university has reduced overall admissions by more than half, from a little over 4,000 last year to about 1,500 this year.

Additionally, they’ve made changes to the usual housing arrangements; rather than having multiple people in one room, every student living on campus has a room to themselves and often their own bathroom. Those who don’t have a private bathroom are assigned one to share with few other students.

University officials have increased sanitization protocols, mandated face masks and social distancing, and switched to a hybrid learning model, Heinselman said.

“We only have a small percentage of face to face classes,” Heinselman said.

Heinselman said the university has worked closely with the Kittitas County Public Health Department to prevent virus transmission among students.

When a student tests positive for the virus, the health department notifies the university immediately, so the student can be isolated within their dorm room. Students can access much of their classwork in isolation and have their meals delivered to them through the Dining Wellness Meal Program.

That’s what happened last week, when a cluster of cases was identified at Wendell Hill B Residence Hall, one of the largest dorms on campus. On Wednesday, health officials noticed three students in the hall had tested positive; as of Sunday, that number had doubled.

“We noticed that there were six people in that residence hall that were positive,” said Mark Larson, Health Officer at the Kittitas County Public Health Department. “That started us down the road of testing that particular residence hall.”

The health department categorized that increase as a “cluster,” and had all students residing at Wendell Hill Hall B — about 150 total — tested Monday for COVID-19 and placed them under self-isolation pending test results.

“This self-isolation includes sequestering in the residence hall room or home for employees working in the residence hall, being restricted to virtual learning until they are cleared to return to class, not leaving your suite, and participating in the CWU Dining Meal delivery service, offered through CWU Housing and Dining Services,” the university said in a news release.

Heinselman said this is the first cluster identified within a residence hall on campus.

“I think we’ve managed the on campus population pretty well,” Heinselman said. “Those numbers continue to be the smaller percentage of the positive cases that we’re seeing within our student body.”

While university officials have been able to quickly isolate on-campus students positive for the virus, Larson said they don’t have the same level of control over the housing arrangements of off-campus students.

Larson said off-campus students with COVID-19 who live with roommates or housemates have sometimes refused to isolate from them or accept alternative housing arrangements that would decrease the risk of transmitting the virus to others.

“They have a difficult time separating from each other, when they have six people living in a house,” Larson said. “We have not been able to get anyone to take the county up on quarantine outside of their house.”

Heinselman said the university is continuing to educate students on proper COVID-19 protocols and encouraging students to hang out virtually instead of in-person. However, he said if a student persistently disregards those protocols in a way that poses a safety risk to others, they could face consequences.

“Our statutory conduct code allows us to investigate and adjudicate that behavior; if found responsible, from a safety standpoint, it could lead to conduct up to suspension,” Heinselman said. “We’re prepared to go there if we need to go there.”

Heinselman said if the numbers increase to the point where the Kittitas County Public Health Department finds virus transmission among CWU students is a safety risk, they could have to close the campus.

“That may look very much like it did last March, where we went exclusively online,” Heinselman said. “We will close the residence halls, we will shut our campus … we’ll honor what’s in the best interest of public health.”