How is COVID-19 beyond Whitman’s campus?

Naia Willemsen, News Reporter

Here on campus—where, according to the Covid-19 dashboard, last updated Sept. 27, 98 percent of the population is vaccinated—it’s easy to forget about Walla Walla’s low vaccination rates and the still-looming threat of COVID-19.

Many campus members can identify with the fact that Whitman students don’t tend to venture out in the greater Walla Walla area, which can create a disconnect from community health information.

While COVID-19 cases in Walla Walla County are beginning to level off, they are still high. According to Coronavirus Task Force Chair Peter Harvey’s Oct. 22 email, “community transmission rates are still considered high… which necessitates everyone’s continued, careful efforts in preventing infection and spread.”

The Walla Walla County Department of Community Health, cites that as of Nov. 5, 66.3 percent of Walla Walla County’s 12+ year old population is vaccinated. This is below the Washington State vaccination rate of 73.1 percent for the 12+ population, according to the Washington State Department of Health.

After high demand following Walla Walla’s first COVID-19 vaccine administration on Jan. 18, vaccination rates have plateaued while vaccines still remain available for community members.

Medical Director and Public Health Officer for Walla Walla County Department of Community Health Daniel Kaminsky discussed the state of COVID-19 in Walla Walla county as well as factors influencing vaccination decisions.

“The strategy we thought would be most effective would be showing the data about how vaccines decrease the risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death. As the hospital capacity started to increase, that messaging hit closer to home, because we could see the hospitals start to fill up and that drove some people to get vaccinated as well,” Kaminsky said. “The people who from the beginning weren’t going to get vaccinated, I think their opinion has gotten more solidified.”

These opinions are especially visible in active areas, such as downtown Walla Walla. According to Downtown Walla Walla Foundation Executive Director Kathryn Witherington, although most people have been understanding of mask mandates and other COVID-19 precautions, some have not.

“While hostile reactions are definitely in the minority, the struggle of anticipating how to deal with it has caused a lot of strain on our community. So yes, while most people are lovely and understanding, the handful that aren’t on any given day have made things a little more tense than I’d like,” Witherington said.

Despite this tension, Witherington highlights that COVID-19 has had positive effects on Walla Walla, including the creation of the 1st Avenue Plaza. There have also been other, less visible benefits.

“In some ways, I think it has helped recenter our community around taking care of each other. Kindness is given and celebrated every day, and in my perspective, downtown feels more like a neighborhood instead of just a commercial district,” Witherington said. “I also think the pandemic incentivized our community to explore their back yard a little more, and people are discovering places in Walla Walla they never knew existed.”

Witherington conveyed that Whitman students going downtown has had a positive impact on the downtown community.

“Whitman students brought a much missed energy back to Walla Walla. I think we’d taken that for granted in the past, but after not having it for a year and a half, we realized how important it was,” Witherington said. “I love seeing Whitman students downtown enjoying the neighborhood, studying in 1st Ave Plaza and supporting our local businesses.” 

Kaminsky is also appreciative of Whitman’s impact on the community in terms of the college’s COVID-19 response.

“I’m impressed with Whitman’s response to COVID-19,” Kaminsky said. “We, from a health department standpoint, feel very comfortable about Whitman because of their high vaccination rate, pretty sound testing strategies and just really sharp and attentive people managing COVID-19 on campus.”