Around the globe some people are choosing to participate in social gatherings for the express intention of catching COVID-19.
They’re being called coronavirus or COVID parties, and the idea behind them is that it is better to get sick with the virus and “get it over with.”
Officials in Walla Walla County say some of that is happening here — to varying degrees of intention — and such behavior is irresponsible and damaging.
Walla Walla Police Department Chief Scott Bieber also noted that disobeying Gov. Jay Inslee’s March 23 “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order that restricts groups is illegal and could result in being taken to court.
The coronavirus party concept is that with intentional exposure to the disease comes “herd immunity.”
That happens when enough people in a community have developed resistance to a contagious disease so that the majority of people are then immune to it, especially through vaccination.
Once potentially-deadly childhood diseases such as chickenpox, mumps and measles no longer instill fear in every parent, thanks to herd immunity and effective vaccines.
Those diseases don’t return, agreed Sarah Murray, public health nurse and clinic lead for Walla Walla County’s Department of Community Health.
But there is no vaccine for COVID-19 yet, and no one knows if those who test positive for the virus actually develop immunity, Murray said. People don’t develop immunity to influenza, she added. Instead they vaccinate for prominent flu viruses every year.
None of that has stopped people from intentionally flouting health recommendations by exposing themselves and others to COVID-19, said Meghan DeBolt, director of the county’s Department of Community Health, on Monday.
When someone tests positive for the disease, he or she is asked by health officials to name who they’ve been in personal contact with. Those queries have revealed people here are grouping together for these parties, she said.
“We don’t know when it is happening. It’s after the fact that we hear from cases. We ask about contacts, and there are 25 people because: ‘We were at a COVID party,’” DeBolt offered as an example.
New positive test results in the county have resulted from such gatherings, DeBolt said.
“It’s unacceptable. It’s irresponsible.”
Murray said today her team routinely investigates disease outbreaks. Often it’s a case of food poisoning that gets traced back to a restaurant because enough people, with diarrhea or other symptoms, recall they ate at one place.
“We depend on the patient to provide us information. We also live in a small town and the hotline has been invaluable,” Murray said. “People are willing to tell on themselves and others.”
Scouring the community for COVID-19 is the same principal, but in hyperdrive and with more speed bumps, she said.
Outside of coronavirus parties, for instance, people don’t usually know everyone they came in contact with before they tested positive.
“Like someone who went to Walmart and they talked to a guy they know but they don’t know his name,” Murray explained.
Even when a person can name all their contacts, it doesn’t mean everyone on the list can get tested, she said.
“We do not have the capacity to test everyone who desires a test of who is not symptomatic. Going around testing everyone without symptoms is not wise.”
That can be frustrating for people — without a test, people who have been possibly exposed to the coronavirus are told to stay home 14 days. With a positive test, they can potentially be back to work in 10 days, Murray said.
There are more unknowns about the virus than there are facts at this time, the nurse said, adding that she believes most of Walla Walla is being smart about the health crisis.
“We want to make sure our Valley is making good choices and not making reckless decisions.”
Bieber said he would be willing to add the possibility of criminal charges to Murray’s hopes, in the case of a coronavirus party.
“We’re not going to overreact,” he said of his officers.
“But we’re going to contact people who tested positive and follow up with a phone call, making them aware of the potential gross misdemeanor offense of disobeying the governor’s orders. If we find intentional violations, we will refer them to the city attorney.”
Walla Walla and the county have been “very lucky” in case numbers, Bieber said. “But I’d rather wake everybody up before that happens.”
As of Monday, Walla Walla County has 94 residents, including some Tyson Fresh Meats employees, who have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
That includes 34 people who have recovered from and four people admitted to the hospital with the coronavirus, according to the health department.
There’s a reason this time of year is called “spring fever” and people are getting antsy, he said.
But his department has spent weeks explaining to people the reasons for staying home — now is not the time to let down the guard, Bieber said.
“We’re not going to be hardcore … but the time is past for education and encouragment.”
Officer Dylan Schmick, spokesman for the College Place Police Department, said the department strongly condemns COVID-19 parties for the threat those place on the entire Walla Walla Valley.
“Our department will be working diligently to locate and disperse these events if they are taking place. The department’s goal is enforcement through education, but we are prepared to take further action if deemed necessary. The selfish actions of a few will greatly impact all of us,” Schmick said.
DeBolt and Walla Walla City Manager Nabiel Shawa said irresponsible behavior surrounding COVID-19 can delay the reopening of the community.
“We are struggling to get through this to open our businesses,” Shawa said today.
“The longer this goes on the more protracted the effect on our economy will be.”