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University of Wyoming board of trustees extends mask mandate into February over virus concerns

University of Wyoming Classroom Building on the UW Laramie Campus (File; Brendan LaChance, Oil City)

The University of Wyoming board of trustees voted Wednesday to continue a mask mandate into February due to continued concerns over COVID-19.

The mandate, which has been in place on the UW campus since August 11, is extended until at least February 16, where it will be reviewed at the next board of trustees meeting. With the campus soon undergoing winter break, the action is a precautionary measure resulting from concerns that a mass return of students could create a surge of new virus cases.

The requirement is for UW buildings where social distancing of six feet isn’t possible. Exceptions include athletic events, theatre performances and private, by-invitation events that involve spaces on the UW campus.

“There’s just no way right now to tell what the conditions will be like when classes resume January 18, so we believe it’s prudent to continue with the policies that have allowed us to have a successful in-person fall semester when we begin the spring semester,” UW President Ed Seidel said in a release. “We are committed to continue delivering the in-person experience our students deserve, and this approach puts us in the best position to do so. If the conditions are such that removal of the indoor mask requirement is warranted in February, that’s what we intend to do.”

All students, staff and faculty will be tested for COVID-19 once the spring semester gets underway in January. From there, a random 3% sampling of the entire university population will be tested weekly (including those who are vaccinated) to attempt and gauge virus transmission on campus. This is a continuation of a policy that was in place for the beginning of the fall semester.

Most of the COVID-19 response package discussed by the board this week is similar to the plan instituted throughout the fall semester. It included a recommendation for all employees in UW health care settings to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Staff at the school’s Early Care and Education Center have already been required to receive the shot.

According to UW’s COVID-19 dashboard, there are eight active COVID-19 cases (seven off-campus students and one employee) on campus as of Monday. Of all employees — benefited and non-benefited — about two-thirds are vaccinated, compared to roughly 42% of the student population.

The uncertainty of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, a recently-discovered mutation of the virus, also played a role in extending the mask mandate, per the report from the board’s meeting. Currently, at least 34 states (not including Wyoming) have detected at least one case of the Omicron variant. While Wyoming has yet to detect a case, states that border Wyoming — Colorado, Nebraska, Utah and Idaho — have all detected cases as well. 

Campus COVID infections rose throughout November, hovering around an average of 40 active cases daily for three weeks after November 8, then sharply declining toward the end of the month. However, the board stated in its meeting report that the drop was most likely “artificial” due to there being no on-campus testing during Thanksgiving break.

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