‘It shows that the vaccine works’: COVID cases plummet in Pullman as WSU sees high vaccination numbers

PULLMAN, Wash. — For nearly a year, health experts have praised the efficacy and importance of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Its effectiveness can be seen in one college town: Pullman. 

Ahead of fall 2020 classes, Whitman County was averaging fewer than 10 new COVID cases per day. That changed when classes started. 

READ: 94% of WSU employees have been vaccinated against COVID-19

WSU only offered remote classes at that time, but some students still returned to Pullman and that is when cases skyrocketed.  

“That very quickly jumped up to 30, to 50 a day, every single day for a very, it seems like a long time,” said Chris Skidmore the director of Whitman County Public Health. 

Even with students learning remotely, WCPH and WSU were swamped with the onslaught of COVID cases. 

“In the fall of 2020, part of that is a natural epidemiologic curve and that we had a highly susceptible population,” said Regents Professor of Pathology and Infectious Disease Guy Palmer. “A relatively small percentage of individuals had been infected, so there was no natural immunity and we obviously did not have the vaccine at that point of time.” 

This year, with a majority of students back on campus, the situation is a lot better and it is because of vaccines, Palmer and Skidmore say.

WSU put a vaccination requirement in place for staff and students to return to campus this year. 

No one was vaccinated last fall. Fast forward to now: 94 percent of WSU employees are vaccinated, as well as 96 percent of Pullman students.

“Vaccinations have just been a game-changer. When we compare fall of ‘21 to fall of 2020, our case counts are down significantly,” said Joel Schwartzkopf, Executive Director of Washington State University’s Cougar Health Services. 

Between August 1 and November 17, 2020, more than 2,000 people tested positive for COVID at WSU. Compare that to the same time frame in 2021 — only 322 have tested positive. 

“There’s no question the vaccine is responsible for the control that we’re seeing, especially in populations that are heavily vaccinated,” Palmer said. 

There are still COVID-19 cases in Pullman, but the  the situation is better. More people 39-59 in rural areas are testing positive, Skidmore says.

Nearly 43 percent of people 12 and older are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in Whitman County, which is much lower than the WSU’s vaccination rate. Skidmore says in tracking COVID-19 cases, vaccinations and vaccination statuses count toward the students’ hometown numbers. However, that’s not the case when a student tests positive. If a student who is not from Pullman tests positive it does count for Whitman County cases.

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel. The vaccines are rolling out, the vaccines are effective, we’re continually getting a larger percentage of our population vaccinated and we’ll continue to get larger numbers, a larger percentage of our population vaccinated as people overcome the hesitancies that they’ve had,” Palmer said.

Schwartzkopf is seeing more people, who had exemptions, coming into Cougar Health wanting to get vaccinated now.

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