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By Izzie Lund

A Western student has tested positive for the novel coronavirus, university officials announced on Monday, March 16. The woman, who is in her 20s according to an alert from administrators, lives off campus and is the first student to be diagnosed with the virus that causes the respiratory illness COVID-19.

So far, Western has refused to disclose the number of tests that have been given to students. Western student Anna Bailey, who is not the unnamed student in the Western alert, was under investigation for COVID-19 until her test results came back negative last Wednesday, March 11. Bailey has three roommates who continued to attend classes until she took the coronavirus test.
Bailey’s case illustrates the confusion, challenging communication, and tricky personal decision-making that has characterized the novel coronavirus’ arrival in Bellingham.

“They said it takes 72 hours for the results to come back,” Bailey said. “The nurse told me that the test results might take longer just because of the sheer volume of coronavirus results that Washington state is processing.”

Those tests were initially delayed, first by a flaw in the initial tests that resulted in false negatives and by narrow definitions of who should be tested.

In an analysis of the U.S. response, researchers pointed out in an op-ed for the Journal of the American Medical Association, “FDA made clear that laboratories were encouraged to develop tests but could not use them for clinical diagnosis without FDA’s ‘approval, clearance, or authorization during an emergency declaration.’”

Bailey began to feel sick the week before Valentine’s Day, as if she had a cold, just before a visit to her parents in Kirkland that weekend. 

“Nobody knew [at the time] that Kirkland had the coronavirus,” she said. 

The first diagnosis of the novel coronavirus in the United States was of a person who had traveled to Seattle-Tacoma airport. The first reported death from COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, occurred in Kirkland on Feb. 29.

Public health officials later acknowledged that there had been earlier cases and deaths that were not understood to be COVID-19 until well after the epidemic had begun.

On Friday, Feb. 21, after she came back to Western, Bailey said she woke up with a fever. She went to the Student Health Center and was told that she probably had the flu. She declined a flu test. 

Bailey’s symptoms continued over the weekend, and she went back to the Health Center on Monday, Feb. 24, for another fever and a swollen neck. She could barely move, Bailey said. 

The Health Center gave her steroids to reduce the swelling in her neck, Bailey said. She began to feel better, but her neck started to swell again a couple of days later. She went back to the Health Center and they tested her blood. 

“[They said,] ‘You have a really, really bad bacterial infection,’” Bailey said. 

Bailey said that the Health Center gave her more steroids and antibiotics, which temporarily made her feel better before she felt worse again. She said she went back to the Student Health Center, but they were unable to test her for COVID-19, as there were no tests available.

Bailey was tested for a variety of different viruses, as a process of elimination, and tested negative for all of them. When the Student Health Center was able to start testing for COVID-19, a week ago on Monday, March 9, she got tested.

Because of federal patient privacy laws, the Western Front was unable to confirm this information with the Student Health Center. 

Bailey said one of her roommates has started to show the same symptoms that she had.

Bailey contacted Western’s administration  after she was tested.

“I called [Western’s] president’s office and I was like, ‘Hey, I really think you should let the general public know that I am under investigation for coronavirus,’” Bailey said. “And the receptionist, she was really nice, was like, ‘Yeah, I know, we’re monitoring the situation closely.’ And I was like, ‘OK, but I still think people need to know this.’”

On March 10, Western sent an alert out notifying students of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Whatcom County, a woman in her 60s who was treated at PeaceHealth St. Joseph’s Medical Care Center, according to a press release from the Whatcom County Health Department. 

A Snohomish County resident who was working on a dorm construction project on Western’s campus was diagnosed shortly afterward, as was a King County-based employee of the Lummi Indian Business Council. 

On Friday, a woman in her 40s became Whatcom’s second confirmed resident with the virus. Another case, a woman in her 20s, was announced Sunday, March 15, and many more are expected.

“The main reason the coronavirus is a big deal is because it’s new. It's a newly emerged disease that we are seeing, [and] one of the challenges that we have is that we don’t necessarily have the full picture,” said Steve Bennett, a community health professor at Western. 

And, unlike influenza, which nevertheless killed 245 people in Washington during the 2018-2019 flu season, “We don’t have a vaccine or official treatments,” he said.

The novel coronavirus will not be slowed without a community effort, said Melissa Morin, communications specialist for the Whatcom County Health Department.

“As a community, we may need to take actions to limit the spread. That includes things like suggesting that people work from home,” Morin said. 

Health officials also encourage people to wash their hands with soap and water, scrubbing for a minimum of 20 seconds (or two rounds of “Happy Birthday”), avoid touching their faces, and practice “social distancing” of 6 to 10 feet, which is the range of droplets projected by a sneeze or cough. 

Because the virus can live for many hours on surfaces, people are strongly encouraged to use UV light, rubbing alcohol or bleach solutions to clean counters, door knobs, light switches, phones and other frequently touched surfaces.

Morin said the Whatcom County Health Department is prepared. 

“We have been doing pandemic preparation for years, and have had the experience of responding to past situations like this,” Morin said. “So, really, this is not a new response for public health. It’s a new virus, but the way that we respond to this isn’t new.” 

RELATED STORY: Can you get tested in Whatcom County? Maybe.

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