UW mask mandate continued until February

CASPER — The University of Wyoming will extend its mask mandate until mid-February, the board of trustees voted Wednesday.

The mandate, introduced in August, requires all students, faculty and staff to wear masks inside most university buildings when social distancing isn’t possible.

In a meeting Wednesday morning, board members agreed to keep the rule in place amid concerns winter break could bring a wave of new coronavirus cases to campus.

The mandate was renewed as part of a larger package of policies proposed by the university’s COVID-19 advisory group. The majority of the package remains unchanged from the fall semester.

As part of the plan, all students, staff and faculty will also undergo COVID-19 testing when students return to campus in January. After that, the university will continue surveillance testing 3% of the school community each week.

The plan also included a recommendation to require all employees in University of Wyoming health care settings to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

At the moment, the vaccine is optional for most university employees. The school does require staff at its Early Care and Education center to be vaccinated, however.

The board is set to review its mask policy again at its Feb. 16 meeting.

The mandate was first introduced Aug. 11, shortly before the start of the fall semester.

At the time, COVID-19 cases in the Equality State were just starting to surge again. That spike would last the next couple of months, with state hospitalizations reaching record heights in October.

Coronavirus infections at the university have mostly subsided since then, but it’s unclear whether it’ll stay that way, UW President Ed Seidel told board members.

Globally, omicron and delta cases have been on the rise since at least Thanksgiving. After an unexpected spike, Cornell University decided Tuesday to close its Ithaca, N.Y., campus and send students home for finals.

With this in mind, the university, too should be prepared for another surge in COVID-19 cases, Seidel said — especially with the omicron variant looming.

The new variant was first discovered in South Africa and Botswana in early November. As of Tuesday, cases of the omicron variant have been identified in at least 33 states.

The Center for Disease Control cautioned the same day the variant could be the impetus for another nationwide surge in infections.

It’s too early to tell how the severity of omicron infections compare to other forms of the virus, and how effective COVID-19 vaccines are at fighting it, the CDC said.

Because so little is known about the variant, the university stands to benefit from keeping its mask mandate in place until February, said David Jones, dean of the University of Wyoming’s College of Health Sciences and head of the advisory group.

“I think by then, we will have a good sense of where we are on this campus,” Jones told board members Wednesday.

Some board members pointed to falling infections among students, staff and faculty as an indicator the university was ready to repeal the rule.

“I believe there’s a real cost for us to continue to do this when numbers are so low locally,” trustee Macey Moore said, adding that the rule was affecting students’ quality of life.

During the meetings, Trustee Brad LaCroix motioned to modify the university’s COVID-19 policy to not require masks effective Jan. 1. The motion was voted down 7-4.

The campus is more divided over the mandate than earlier this semester, student and faculty representatives said Wednesday.

The student body in particular seems “evenly divided” on the topic, said Hunter Swilling, president of the university’s Associated Students group.

Swilling said requiring masks until at least February would help keep students safe, and keep classrooms open. Students struggled to stay engaged in their classes when the university was online, he said.

“Preventing that from happening to our current group of freshmen would be an absolute priority of mine,” he said.

The university reported eight active cases as of Monday. Seven were off-campus students, and one a university employee.

While COVID infections appear to be on the decline, they did rise briefly in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving break.

The university recorded about 30 active cases at the beginning of the month, which jumped to an average of about 40 active cases daily over the next few weeks.