Further information on campus COVID-19 status made public


Bailey Tomlinson, News Editor

Following an email sent by President James L. Gaudino confirming 16 positive cases of COVID-19 on campus, further information on why the university has not been disclosing case numbers and how it has been handling positive cases has been made public. The 16 cases referenced in the email were confirmed not to be associated with one another or linked with any one event by Dean of Student Success Greggory Heinselman.

Currently, the number of students who have tested positive for COVID-19 is not being made public. According to Heinselman, this choice was made with several factors in mind, one of which is how often the university is receiving updates on numbers.

“At least right now, the choice has been not to share those numbers, because they change daily,” Heinselman said. “Would we update them daily, would we update them weekly? It’s really only a snapshot in time, is the challenge.”

Another factor considered when deciding not to make the number of positive cases public information was the concern that it may create a false sense of security that could lead to further spread.

“We don’t want individuals to get a false sense of security because of the numbers. That’s a little bit of the concern … is oh, we dropped 10 positive cases today, and people read that and go, ‘oh, so I’m good, I don’t need to wear a mask anymore,’” Heinselman said. “It’s the whole issue of testing as well. If we did mass testing and people got a negative response to their test, there’s a false sense of safety in that. ‘Oh, I can hang out with my friends, I don’t need to practice social distancing,’ and all of a sudden we see a spread.”

CWU conducts its COVID-19 testing with the help of the county, and the county reports updated numbers back to the university two or three times a day.  

“We have been trending in the low double digits or single digits most of the academic year,” Heinselman said. “Now again, that changes every day. I get an update on numbers every night and an update on numbers every morning.”

According to Heinselman, who also chairs CWU’s COVID-19 management team, part of the challenge is keeping these numbers as low as they are. This is where the university’s socialization model of enforcing health and safety protocols comes into play.

A case numbers dashboard specific to the school, similar in function to the Kittitas County Community Impact Dashboard, is currently being discussed and may be made available within the month, Heinselman said. 

One of the challenges a potential dashboard faces is being complex enough to communicate the full scope of the information presented, while still being easy enough to understand. 

For example, distinctions of how many COVID-19 positive students live on or off-campus would need to be made clear on the dashboard. Heinselman said this is one of many small details CWU would have to decide how to present that is unique to a university setting. 

“A lot of campuses have chosen to [make a dashboard], with the numbers. We’re talking about what that dashboard would look like,” Heinselman said. “And as you share the numbers and you put together a dashboard, the footnotes that define that number and the category that that number falls in needs to be pretty extensive so people understand.”

Currently, CWU’s positive case numbers are being counted in the county’s total numbers. It was decided during the summer that this was how the data would be processed during the beginning of the fall quarter, according to Heinselman.

“I think we’re at a point where we’re rethinking that. And I think in a couple weeks we could find ourselves in a place where we are choosing to present a university dashboard,” Heinselman said.

According to Heinselman, CWU was aware that students had tested positive for COVID-19 prior to fall quarter beginning and the school reopening for physical instruction.

“We actually knew prior to opening that we had some students that were positive. We do daily counts with the health department and confirm,” Heinselman said.

Heinselman also said that soon after students returned, 400+ student athletes, coaches and trainers in the athletics department were tested for COVID-19 to meet an NCAA requirement. This testing was also done with the assistance of county health.

For the student body, Heinselman said, testing is available at no cost if they are symptomatic or have been exposed to somebody who has tested positive. 

Under an emergency order made by Washington state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, COVID-19 tests are free under these conditions until Oct. 23, unless an extension is made. 

“We’ve kind of cycled through the initial testing that we did with our athletes, and most of those students that were tested positive have been released from isolation,” Heinselman said. “And now what we see is just a general population of students.”

Heinselman said there is no set number of positive cases at which the campus will return to entirely remote learning. Instead, there is a balance that must be kept, and if any of the areas of the university fall out of balance, a return must be considered.

“The number for us is really predicated on, ‘can the institution itself continue to serve the population that’s here?’ And the reality is …  it’s really probably more at some level the balance between the number of positive cases and the workforce,” Heinselman said.

This balance is threefold: CWU must keep in mind the number of students, the number of faculty and the available healthcare resources in the community. 

“If we’ve got 50 faculty out that are [COVID-19] positive, and we can’t deliver instruction … then that has an impact on what that number looks like. … It’s got to be a balance between students and the workforce,” Heinselman said. “Even with the county and the city numbers for the healthcare facilities. We also want to be sensitive to the fact that if individuals of our faculty and staff or our students need the utilization of healthcare facilities in the community.”

Heinselman said that CWU has been lucky so far, and it has not contributed as a campus with members of the student body or the workforce to the demand on local healthcare facilities.

“I wish I could tell you, oh, [the threshold to return to remote learning is] 200, right. We yield to it, we send everybody home and we shutter campus again,” Heinselman said. “But it’s not that simple. It’s more complicated than that.”