The pandemic scrambled plans at Wyoming’s sole public university this week as school officials hit pause on reopening two weeks into the fall semester due to new COVID-19 infections.
COVID-19’s spread, meanwhile, leveled out slightly across the state as daily counts of lab-confirmed positive cases slowed.
Known active cases of the disease — the number of people officials believe are fighting infections but haven’t yet recovered — dropped to 608 by Friday morning, according to Wyoming Department of Health numbers. That’s a decrease of 17 from last Friday.
Wyoming’s lab-confirmed caseload reached 3,334 by Friday morning with 168 added this week. That’s 58 fewer new cases than were added the previous week. Total recoveries reached 2,789. That number grew by 203, six more than the previous week.
The DOH reported four COVID-19-related deaths — all of which occurred earlier this summer. Last week it reported zero deaths. Hospitalizations stayed fairly level, dropping just one from 16 on Saturday to 15 Thursday afternoon. Gov. Mark Gordon and the DOH did not reclassify any of the state’s metrics; new cases and hospitalizations are still listed as “concerning.”
At the University of Wyoming — where officials conducted mass surveillance testing of students and staff and implemented a phased semester that began with online-only education — the virus’s spread has delayed a plan to resume some in-person classes starting Labor Day.
On Wednesday, UW announced it had put its fall return plan on ice for five business days to “more fully assess the prevalence of COVID-19 infection among the UW community.”
The pause was triggered by five new positive tests among students Wednesday, the threshold in UW’s contingency plan for such action. Cases had mounted through the week as university officials reported that off-campus gatherings involving UW students had resulted in new infections and dozens of quarantines.
The pause comes as colleges and universities across the country struggle to contain outbreaks on their campuses.
UW President Ed Seidel will determine next steps on Sept. 9, according to a UW press release, such as returning to the planned reopening or shifting to a fully virtual program.
“We have planned and prepared for this possibility and are ready to evaluate and work toward resuming in-person operations,” Seidel said in the press release. “Our sincere hope is that it will be possible to resume our fall return plan after this pause, based upon the rigorous testing, tracing and quarantine protocols we have put in place to protect the health and safety of our students, employees and broader community.”
Under the pause plan, the university is instructing students in UW campus housing to shelter in place and suspending face-to-face activities. Most campus facilities are closed.
Officials also admonished students against activities that are long-held traditions of college life, namely, parties. “We urge students to refrain from gathering in large groups … where physical distancing cannot be met,” Dean of Students Ryan O’Neil said in a release. “The stakes are high, and the behavior of one person can have impacts for many.”
Officials believe the “vast majority” of this week’s new cases are related to two off-campus gatherings last weekend.
The university intends to punish students who don’t comport; students who host or attend gatherings will be placed on interim suspension, according to UW.
As of Thursday afternoon, the University reported 30 active cases and 63 recovered cases. More than 14,000 tests have been conducted among students and staff.
Northwest College in Powell had its first confirmed case this week as well, the Powell Tribune reports. Officials there are contact tracing and working with county health officials to contain the virus, according to the college.
Wyoming’s COVID-19 related death count rose to 41 this week. The four newly announced fatalities include an older Fremont County woman with underlying health conditions who died in late August after being hospitalized in another state; an older Washakie County man who died in July after being exposed to the virus during a nursing home outbreak; an older Park County woman who died out-of-state in July after being exposed at a long-term care facility outside Wyoming and an older Lincoln County man who died in June after being hospitalized in another state, according to DOH.
Officials appear to be containing an outbreak in the Wyoming State Penitentiary. The Wyoming Department of Corrections on Wednesday reported seven active cases among inmates and one among staff of the state prison, with 94 recovered inmates and 23 recovered staff.
Since reporting in late July that the virus had been detected in the state prison, numbers of active cases there had spiked. Wednesday’s DOC count represents a notable decrease.
The containment, however, may have come at the cost of restricted activity and lockdowns that drastically affected life for inmates, according to the Rawlins Times.
“My husband has not seen sunlight or fresh air in a month and a half,” one inmate’s wife told the paper.