Dear Whitman community,

Despite our alert last week about rising COVID-19 cases and the necessary return to indoor masking, we saw  a record number of COVID-19 cases on the Whitman campus this week, with 49 students testing positive Monday through Thursday, and we currently have 60 students total in isolation either in Whitman-provided housing or their off-campus residences. 

While this high number is alarming, our rigorous testing and contact tracing protocols mean that we are quickly identifying and isolating new cases even as the incredibly infectious BA.2 omicron subvariant (which is 30% more transmissible than the original omicron variant) takes hold in Walla Walla and across the country. Let me take a moment now to say thank you to the Welty nurses and staff, who have administered nearly 400 COVID tests so far this week, and to the many staff from Student Affairs, Res Life, Bon App, Security and other offices involved in supporting students in isolation.

According to our epidemiologist, who works with several other colleges that have recently seen similar COVID spikes, it is realistic to expect another seven to ten days of extremely high case counts. As you can see in the epidemiological curve chart below detailing our case counts over the past ten days, we are likely still on the front edge of this outbreak, although with widespread cooperation with our campus COVID-19 protocols we hope to get over the peak soon. 

However, to start bringing down the number of COVID cases so that we can maintain campus activities and continue planning for an in-person Commencement ceremony, it is vital that everyone responsibly follow all the COVID protocols in place. Limiting our social gatherings, widespread use of N95/KN95/KF94 masks and our high vaccination and booster rate remain the most important tools we have to limit the impact of this COVID-19 outbreak. 

Contact tracing makes it clear that the vast majority of these cases are related to viral transmission happening in households and through social gatherings. As we head into the weekend, limit your social gatherings to your immediate residence hall or household to help reduce the chance of spreading the virus. Please make thoughtful and responsible decisions about how you interact with people this weekend and next week. 

N95 or equivalent masks can significantly reduce the risk of transmission; if someone is unmasked and infectious, they present a risk to others, but if the other person/people present are masked with a well-fitted N95 or equivalent, the wearer is well protected because these masks are very efficient at filtering out respiratory droplets from unmasked people. If you need new N95/KF94 masks, we normally have them available at Cordiner Hall on weekdays from 8 to 9 a.m. and 12 to 1 p.m. and we have also opened Cordiner today until 5 p.m. for mask distribution.

Vaccinations help prevent many cases of serious illness and death, and on our highly vaccinated and boosted campus, we see that most Whitties with COVID-19 suffer mild to moderate symptoms and recover within 10 days. However, there are those in our community who have had more serious cases, as well as people who experience the lingering effects of long COVID well after they are no longer testing positive. We strongly encourage everyone who is immunocompromised or anyone not up-to-date on the COVID-19 vaccine and any boosters for which they are eligible to talk to their healthcare provider about getting an additional dose of the vaccine for increased protection.

Based on the specific details of what is currently happening at Whitman, our epidemiologist confirms that using rapid antigen tests on people who are close contacts or symptomatic is the most effective way to accurately identify active COVID cases. Rapid antigen tests provide quick results for symptomatic or close contact testing, whereas PCR test results take a long amount of time, and therefore we do not plan to implement campus-wide PCR testing at this point. We do expect everyone to access the testing available on the appropriate timeline: if you are symptomatic, 24 hours after symptoms begin; if you are a close contact, testing 5 to 7 days after exposure (and at other times if advised).

As we continue learning what it means to live with the coronavirus and all its mutations, we have seen that positive case counts seem to go in waves, and there is reason to hope that will be true of our current outbreak. However, your cooperation with masking, testing, isolating and social gathering limits is essential in helping to make this happen. While the Cabinet and elected faculty leadership do not feel it necessary to make any further modifications to campus activities at this point, we will continue to diligently monitor and evaluate circumstances in order to make decisions that protect the Whitman community and keep us on track for an in-person Commencement ceremony.

Best,
Peter

Peter Harvey
Chair, Coronavirus Task Force