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Coronavirus continues to impact the Valley

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Walla Walla and Oregon schools are suspending various extra-curricular events in a precautionary public health strategy during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The steps announced this morning are the latest in a constantly evolving approach to COVID-19 in the local community, on college campuses and in major gatherings of 250 people or more declared over the last 24 hours by governors of Washington and Oregon to create social distancing and prevent the spread of the new virus.

The changes come as Columbia County announced its first COVID-19 case and Umatilla County followed its first confirmed case with a second presumptive positive test — all of which was announced late Wednesday afternoon.

Thus far, health officials say no presumptive positive COVID-19 cases have been identified in Walla Walla County at this time. Six tests are at the lab awaiting results, according to the latest information.

This morning, Columbia County Public Health said two others who traveled with the local person are also under monitoring and have been quarantined at home — one in Garfield County and one in Snohomish County.

The Columbia County resident is over 60 and is believed to have contracted COVID-19 while traveling overseas with the other two monitored patients. All immediately quarantined at home upon arrival.

The person has visited no retail or community events, having been notified before landing home of the virus’s potential damage.

“The threat to our community is low from this exposure,” the public health announcement said.

That’s not been the case in metropolitan areas.

The World Health Organization officially declared the novel coronavirus COVID-19 a pandemic Wednesday morning, and a slew of national, statewide and local measures were issued in the following 24 hours in order to combat the spread of the virus.

President Donald Trump said Wednesday night during a public address from the Oval Office that he is suspending all travel between the U.S. and Europe for 30 days beginning Friday as he seeks to combat a viral pandemic.

So far, Washington had more than 366 cases confirmed late Wednesday. That number is expected to climb into the tens of thousands, Inslee said.

At least 29 deaths have been confirmed in the state.

With Washington Gov. Jay Inslee banning gatherings of more than 250 people in three Western Washington counties, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown instituted that ban across statewide for the next four weeks in Oregon

“It’s time for us all to do what we can to slow its spread,” Brown said late Wednesday.

On the homefront, response has been tailored around preventing and/or slowing transmission of the virus. A number of local businesses and services are making adjustments.

Whitman College officials said today the school will go into an online learning model on March 30, the first day of classes after spring break in response to the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.

Classes are canceled for Friday — spring break officially starts Monday.

There are no known presumptive positive cases of the virus on campus, officials said, but efforts to stop its spread are being increased.

This morning, operators of Walla Walla fitness program Cardio Strength Bootcamp announced via social media channels the suspension of their early morning high intensity interval training workouts in the Sharpstein Elementary gym three days a week.

The suspension of the program runs until further notice, though coaches will continue to post and support workouts that can be done for members at home. Payments made will be credited forward, the post said.

“While we certainly didn’t want to be among the first to reach until more information was available, we certainly don’t want to be among the last to react when the risk of everyone’s health is the primary issue,” the post said.

Co-founder Marc Yonts said this morning the response of the program’s 45 to 50 clients was an initial concern, but member reaction had been extremely supportive.

Last Saturday, downtown Walla Walla coffee shop Coffee Perk posted its cautionary effort to temporarily suspend the use of personal mugs brought into the First Avenue business.

Starbucks, which also took a similar approach, sent out a detailed strategy via email Wednesday night on case-by-case plans for its locations.

“We appreciate your understanding that, as a customer, your Starbucks experience may look different as we navigate through this time together,” the email from CEO Kevin Johnson said.

Although regular operations are currently maintained at its locations, modifications could come if necessary.

“This means that as we navigate this dynamic situation community-by-community and store-by-store, we may adapt the store experience by limiting seating to improve social distancing, enable mobile order-only scenarios for pickup via the Starbucks App or delivery via Uber Eats, or in some cases only the drive-through will be open,” the correspondence said.

“As a last resort, we will close a store if we feel it is in the best interest of our customers and partners, or if we are directed to do so by government authorities. In any such situation, we expect store disruption to be temporary.”

Public transit system Valley Transit has posted cautions on its buses with tips to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among passengers, including distance between riders and reminders to cover coughs and sneezes and avoid touching your face with unwashed hands.

Valley Transit is also taking measures to disinfect “high touch” areas and spot clean areas touched by observed ill passengers. Paper towels and masks are also available to passengers who appear to be ill.

Steps taken by area school districts are the latest big move.

In Oregon, the governor’s decree means taking the next step to help prevent the spread of the virus for the Milton-Freewater Unified School District, Superintendent Aaron Duff said this morning.

“We will be canceling large, nonessential and group activities,” he said, listing field trips, sporting events, large assemblies, concerts and parent-teacher conferences.

Those steps have been recommended by federal and state health authorities, as a measure to keep schools open but limit nonessential, school-associated gatherings and group activities, the superintendent said.

His office will continue working with county and other health leaders to make necessary changes to the plan, Duff said.

So far attendance for staff and students continues to be high, he added, noting the district has a handful of students who are staying home during the pandemic because of other health issues.

Parents are encouraged to contact school offices with questions and concerns.

In addition to stopping student field trips, the Athena-Weston School District will be canceling most face-to-face parent-teacher conferences, Superintendent Laure Quaresma said today.

Instead, phone conferences will be set up, which will greatly limit the flow of traffic in and out of schools, she said.

The district will also be curtailing the public’s use of school facilities for now, she said, noting that while those buildings are owned by taxpayers, the district has to bear the cost of sanitization — including staff time — between events.

Quaresma said she will be seeking guidance from Oregon State Athletic Association regarding basketball games and other sports events.

Although Brown’s order says school competitions should be halted for now, Athena and Weston are not Portland, Quaresma said.

“We don’t have the masses of people.”

She is continuing to ask questions and look at how to fit the state’s new rules to the Athena-Weston district, Quaresma said.

In Walla Walla, district is suspending all school-sponsored out-of-district student and staff events, plus student events hosted at local schools that draw participants into the community.

The list of suspended activities includes home and away games, student field trips outside of the area, music contests and jamborees, and other program-related competitions.

“This decision came after careful consideration, including consultation with local health officials this morning,” said Superintendent Wade Smith in a release.

It is the best way to protect Walla Walla students, staff and community members, Smith said.

Plans on rescheduling activities and events will be made available when health experts say conditions have improved.

“This is an extremely fluid situation,” Smith said, adding he is pledging to communicate with families regularly and often.

Walla Walla Public Schools will continue to follow its epidemic-pandemic response plan, which can be found at wwps.org.

The district is at Stage 2 of that plan but is prepared to implement Stage 3 if a presumptive-positive case of the virus appears in a Walla Walla person, increasing the probability of person-to-person transmission here.

Those steps include active practice of social distancing in classrooms, postponement of all assemblies, event and outside use of district facilities and preparing for possible school closures and recovery actions.

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Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.