Washington state COVID-19 case map

Counties in Washington hit hardest by COVID-19 are darkest in color on this map.

People who are intentionally flouting health recommendations by exposing themselves and others to COVID-19 are going to push reopening things here back, Walla Walla County health officials said today.

With today’s count, there are now 94 residents, including some Tyson Fresh Meats employees, who have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

The number includes 34 people who have recovered from and four people admitted to the hospital with the coronavirus, according to a news release.

Some of the county’s cases are stemming from people who have purposefully exposed themselves to the virus, said Meghan DeBolt, director of the county’s Department of Community Health.

Her investigative team has been told of local “COVID-19 parties,” where non-infected people mingle with an infected person in an effort to catch the virus, DeBolt said, calling the idea “terrible.”

When someone tests positive for the disease, he or she is asked 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.’”

New positive test results in the county have resulted from such gatherings, DeBolt said.

“It’s unacceptable. It’s irresponsible.”

At one time, chickenpox parties were popular among some families, she noted.

“But chickenpox is a well-understood virus. This virus is not. This virus is only 5 months old.”

There is documented evidence of cases of people who have recovered from the coronavirus, according to medical criterion, then tested positive for it once more, she said.

DeBolt said people touting a need to build herd immunity in the community by intentional exposure are ill informed.

“It’s a really poor excuse to be social,” she said.

Her agency will be reaching out to local law enforcement for help in breaking up COVID parties anytime it’s possible to stop such gatherings, DeBolt said, pointing out her staff can put people in involuntary quarantine to reduce risk to others.

“It is not an innocent endeavor, by any means. It really sets us back. In reopening the county, we look at not only total case count, but if our community is being diligent.”

Exposure parties are a picture of people not taking recommendations to stay apart seriously, she said.

“This will delay our community being able to reopen and get our economy operating. This is stupid … Walla Walla is better than that.”

Health experts don’t yet know if post-illness immunity is a sure thing, if reinfection is possible or if the virus can continue living inside the human body, DeBolt said.

What epidemiologists do know is that even children with COVID-19 might require hospitalization, survivors may suffer long-term damage and no case is “mild,” officials said.

The numbers of COVID-19 cases in Washington state reached 15,185 as of this morning, and 834 deaths have been attributed to the coronavirus.

The state’s virus map shows Yakima, Benton and Franklin counties among those just behind hardest-hit Snohomish and King counties in numbers of cases.

Umatilla County officials are today reporting 70 cases of the coronavirus, 11 of those newly confirmed.

One person is hospitalized from the disease; the county reported its first virus-affiliated death this weekend.

Oregon is reporting 2,759 cases and 109 deaths from the virus. Multnomah and Marion counties on the west side of the state have the highest number of Oregon cases so far, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

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Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 509-526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.