Health officials have traced a recent surge in COVID-19 cases among Western students to parties and other large social gatherings, according to a Western Alert sent on Monday, March 22.
The Whatcom County Health Department has identified approximately five to seven cases that are connected to the gatherings, said Western spokesperson Paul Cocke. Other positive cases may be identified as the investigation continues. Cocke said the health department has linked two parties to the outbreak: one on March 10 and another on March 12.
Cocke said the students who hosted or attended the parties are not currently facing disciplinary action.
“We have taken a non-punitive approach addressing safety, quarantine, testing and education. We will continue to assess the situation as it evolves and determine if disciplinary action is needed,” Cocke said in an email.
The health department is continuing to monitor and trace the outbreak. The Student Health Center is closed for testing this week, so testing was done through the county health department. Five additional Western students tested positive for COVID last week. Tests performed by the health department aren’t listed on Western’s COVID dashboard.
The university administered 13,153 tests during the winter quarter, 45 of which were positive.
Are you a Western student who has hosted or attended parties during the pandemic? We’d love to hear your thoughts on what is and isn’t acceptable behavior. If you’re a student in Bellingham who has noticed neighbors or classmates throwing parties, we’d also be interested in hearing your perspective. We take privacy seriously and won’t publish your name without explicit permission from you. You can get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by DMing us on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.
The Western alert urged people who have attended large parties or social gatherings to quarantine in place, seek medical assistance, get a COVID-19 test and cooperate with the health department for contact tracing.
The email also urged students to use spring break as an opportunity to recommit to protecting communities by wearing masks, physical distancing, washing hands and avoiding large social gatherings.
“It has been a long year of making sacrifices big and small, but we do it for the well-being of our friends, our families, our communities and ourselves,” said the email, which was signed by Dr. Sislena Ledbetter, Executive Director of counseling health and wellness, and by Dr. David Hansen, associate medical director of the Student Health Center.
The pandemic has forced schools across the country to grapple with student parties and other behavior that violates health guidelines.
After a highly-publicized fraternity party at the University of Washington in February, UW vice president of student life Denzil Suite announced that all students who attended would be barred from attending in-person classes for the rest of the month. In Pullman, the city council responded to a large outbreak among Washington State University students by passing an ordinance that made any student caught partying subject to a $250 fine.
At the start of the academic year, Gov. Jay Inslee called on Washington college students to take safety seriously and hold off on parties.
“We need some leadership from the college students here,” Inslee said during a September press conference. “This is just not a moment where typical partying is safe, it’s just dangerous.”
The governor directly addressed students and asked that they, “have a little more safety and a little less ‘Animal House.’”
Nate Sanford is the editor-in-chief of The Western Front and a fourth-year news/editorial journalism major. His reporting focuses on the environment, local politics, urban policy and anything else that matters. His writing has appeared in Crosscut, the Inlander, Whatcom Watch and at least one desk in Haggard Hall. You can find him on Twitter @sanford_nate and at email@example.com.