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Coronavirus 'parties' in a Washington county linked to rise in cases, officials say

“It’s after the fact that we hear," a health official in Walla Walla County said. "We ask about contacts, and there are 25 people because: ‘We were at a COVID party.’”

Health officials in a county in southern Washington state say a rise in coronavirus cases is linked to "COVID-19 parties."

"Walla Walla County health officials are receiving reports of COVID-19 parties occurring in our community, where noninfected people mingle with an infected person in an effort to catch the virus," the county said in a press release Tuesday.

The statement stressed that scientists don't know yet if people infected with the coronavirus become immune and that contracting the virus risks serious illness.

"Health officials stress that there is much we don’t know about COVID-19," the release said. "Epidemiologists don’t know if immunity is a sure thing, if reinfection is possible, or if [the] virus could continue living inside you. They do know that even the young can be hospitalized, survivors may suffer long-term damage, and even a ‘mild’ case isn’t mild."

The county has 94 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, including an additional six cases reported Tuesday. One person has died, according to the county website.

Meghan DeBolt, the county's community health director, told The Walla Walla Union-Bulletin that some of the confirmed cases can be linked back to the coronavirus gatherings.

“We don’t know when it is happening. It’s after the fact that we hear from cases," she said. "We ask about contacts, and there are 25 people because: ‘We were at a COVID party.’”

In a Facebook video message, DeBolt said such parties are "not part of the solution" to reopening the community and asked residents to stay diligent.

"We need to practice proper and physical social distancing and other prevention measures. And we also need to use this time to use good common sense and be smart as we move through this pandemic so that we can begin to reopen our community," she said.

"COVID-19 parties, not part of the solution. Live music at dinner pick-ups at restaurants, not part of the solution. Please help us to reopen our community and our economy," she continued.

Walla Walla in eastern Washington.
Walla Walla in eastern Washington.Getty Images/iStockphoto

DeBolt noted to the Union-Bulletin that chickenpox parties were at one point considered popular. At the gatherings, unvaccinated children were intentionally exposed to a child with the chickenpox so that they would get the disease.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that chickenpox parties can be dangerous and even deadly.

DeBolt told the local news outlet that chickenpox is now a well-understood virus, but the coronavirus is new, and health officials are still trying to learn if post-illness immunity is possible or if reinfection can occur.

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

DeBolt said her agency will be reaching out to local law enforcement to help find and break up such gatherings.

There has been at least one other report of a coronavirus party in the U.S.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear announced in March that a person tested positive after attending a coronavirus party.

"We are battling for the health and even the lives of our parents and our grandparents," Beshear said at the time. "Don't be so callous as to intentionally go to something and expose yourself to something that can kill other people. We ought to be much better than that."