Whitman conducts COVID-19 testing for spring semester: six students, one employee test positive

Emma Fletcher-Frazer, News Editor

Whitman College has administered nearly 3,000 COVID-19 tests to faculty, staff and students in the past two weeks as community members return to in-person and hybrid learning.

They first tested all students, faculty and staff during the week of Jan. 11-17, then again during Jan. 18-24. 

According to Josh Jensen, the Operations/Implementation Chair of the Whitman Coronavirus Taskforce, “day 0 testing went very well. There were no significant lines and the volunteer staff and faculty who facilitated the testing were very efficient.”

Some students arrived late to campus due to weather. In order to test them, “we either had a staff member stay at Cordiner [Hall] late into the night or we delivered test kits to residence hall staff and trained them how to walk students through the test so all students could be tested before they moved in,” Jensen said.

The first two rounds of testing are considered surveillance testing.  

Jensen said that surveillance testing is “conducted to understand overall infection rates in our community,” while diagnostic tests “are individual tests done in response to suspected infections, either due to symptoms or close contacts.”

All Whitman community members were required to be tested during the first and second week in order to access campus. Approximately 300 people have lost access to campus because they did not complete the tests — including students who are returning to campus later in the semester, and people who planned to return to Walla Walla and changed their mind.

We are most concerned about those who are in Walla Walla and still plan to interact with the campus community,” Jensen said. “We will work to get those individuals in compliance with the required testing as quickly as possible so they can return to their regular activities.”

Whitman conducted 1,719 surveillance tests from Jan. 18-24. The number of people tested will vary each week based on the last week’s positive COVID-19 results. This week, one-third of the Whitman population will be randomly selected and tested. If those selected for testing fail to present on one of the testing days, they will lose access to campus facilities.

There are currently seven total confirmed COVID-19 cases since Jan. 12: six students and one employee. The overall surveillance testing positivity rate is 0.08 percent of 2,978 tests administered.

Five of the positive tests were identified this past week. One case was detected through campus surveillance testing. Three cases were identified by diagnostic tests conducted at the Welty Student Health Center because of symptoms or exposure, and the fifth test was conducted off campus and reported to Whitman.

According to Jensen, “So far, the positive COVID cases have been fewer than expected. Our epidemiologist advised us that we could expect a positivity rate between 1% and 2% of the population for our baseline testing and we were well below that.”

Isolation spaces have been set up in a variety of college-owned, off-campus housing. There are 99 rooms available for isolation. Currently, three percent are occupied.

The Threshold Action Level, a rubric categorizing COVID-19-related data into four action levels, is currently set at “high” for the initial campus quarantine period. The action level will change once in-person and hybrid learning begins on Feb. 1. 

The rubric serves as a tool to help evaluate levels of activity on the Whitman campus. It will be re-evaluated weekly for the first weeks of the semester, and then as needed, based on COVID-19 testing results.