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Student COVID-19 positive cases increase during winter quarter

High case count attributed to social gatherings

Bonnie Backstrom, a Student Health Center nurse, greets students coming in for appointments in her protective gear.
Bonnie Backstrom, a Student Health Center nurse, greets students coming in for appointments in her protective gear. Individual student testing is offered in this building. // Photo by Elisa Espinoza

By Elisa Espinoza

Western Washington University’s student community has not been spared from the high count of positive COVID-19 cases in Whatcom County. 

Halfway through winter quarter, Western’s Student Health Center has registered nearly as many positive COVID-19 cases as were reported for the entire fall quarter.

Between September and December, the health center administered 13,749 tests and 38, or 0.27%, were positive.

This quarter, 5,512 tests have been administered and 33, or a little more than half of 1%, were positive, according to Western’s COVID-19 information website on the most recent review of the data. 

“Most of our positive cases this quarter have been from social gatherings off campus,” said David Hansen, associate medical director and staff physician at Western’s Student Health Center, in an email.

These numbers represent all students tested on campus and do not include faculty or staff.  

Whatcom County experienced its highest count of COVID-19 right after the holidays. By the week of Jan. 3, the county announced positive cases had doubled compared to the week before. 

Even though positive cases fell after the peak in January, the numbers still remain high, said Melissa Morin, Whatcom County Health Department public information officer, in an email.  

Morin also attributed the county’s numbers to social gatherings. She advises people to make sure to take all the necessary precautions to prevent contagion. 

“Wearing masks, keeping at least 6 feet of physical distance and limiting the size and frequency of gatherings all work well to limit the spread when done in concert,” Morin said. “When these precautions are not followed, or just one or two steps are taken, the virus spreads.” 

Even though numbers in Western’s community have risen, they still remain lower in comparison to Whatcom County.

“Western has been fortunate to maintain a low positivity rate of 0.64% compared to the 9% positivity rate currently experienced in the county,” Hansen said. 

There are two different kinds of tests offered to students by Western’s Student Health Center. 

Batch or surveillance tests are offered in Fraser Hall. These tests are required every two weeks for students who live, work, practice a sport on campus or have in-person classes. 

A student enters the testing center at Fraser Hall.
A student enters the testing center at Fraser Hall. Batch testing is offered every two weeks to students studying, living, working, or practicing a sport on campus // Photo by Elisa Espinoza

This form of testing combines multiple samples from different students and tests them together, helping reduce the supplies required and saving time. 

Individual tests are performed in the Student Health Center and are offered to students who are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, were in contact with someone who tested positive or were part of a positive batch test, Hansen said. 

To promote safe socialization behavior among students, Western developed a “COVID-19 In Real Life Campaign,” in collaboration with different institutions including Whatcom County’s Health Department. 

This awareness campaign intends to target Western’s community and all college students in Whatcom County, as well as the surrounding areas, said Hunter Stuehm, communications director for the Associated Students. 

Stuehm participated in the development of the campaign. He said college students needed a source of information that better addressed their COVID-19 concerns such as safe online dating or safe outdoor recreation. 

“We cultivated this brand as a way to create quality informed content in a voice and through a medium we believed would be more effective at reaching college students than the messaging from the health authorities to the community at large,” Stuehm said. 

Besides developing a college targeting messaging system, Western has also implemented different COVID-19 safety restrictions designed to protect students and staff who are regularly on campus.

Reeth Pooni, a fourth-year Western student, is part of an undergraduate research group for the chemistry department. She goes to campus twice a week to work in a laboratory.

Pooni is only allowed to be in the building during her scheduled laboratory times and must make sure there is a COVID-19 supervisor in the building while she is there.

As the laboratory is divided into sections, Pooni is able to work near the members of her research team, while remaining socially distant from other groups working in the same room. 

Pooni said she feels safe working on campus as the spaces are being constantly sanitized. 

“They’ve been taking really good precautions,” she said.

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