By Ellen Fike, Cowboy State Daily
The University of Wyoming will require the use of facemasks indoors until at least Sept. 20, its board of trustees decided Wednesday.
The mask requirement is part of a COVID management plan approved by trustees that also encourages and incentivizes COVID vaccinations, requires students and employees to be tested for the coronavirus upon entry to the university, implements a mandatory education seminar on the virus, and expands the current weekly sample testing program to both vaccinated and unvaccinated employees and students — with 3% of the population to be tested weekly. The plan allows for changes and adjustments in rules as circumstances change.
The mask mandate won’t apply to people alone in their offices and private spaces, and there are medical exceptions.
The board also gave UW President Ed Seidel some discretion to lift the mask requirement in certain circumstances. At its Sept. 15 meeting, the board will revisit the requirement by considering data including case numbers, testing prevalence and vaccine uptake.
“Our hope is that the indoor mask requirement will only be necessary for the start of the fall semester,” Seidel said. “We will monitor the data closely between now and when the board revisits the issue at its September meeting.”
Details about the requirements for the educational seminar and one-time testing of all students at the start of the semester will be shared in coming days.
The current fall semester plan is in line with the board’s March 26 vote to fully reopen the university “consistent with the state and federal governments regarding COVID-19.” The fall semester will begin Aug. 23 with face-to-face classes at full capacity, along with face-to-face student engagement programs and in-person athletics experiences.
“We said in March that unless there’s a dramatic, unexpected development, such as an outbreak of some new dangerous COVID variant that is resistant to vaccines, we’d be back fully in person this fall. We are fulfilling that commitment, which has the support of the vast majority of our students and employees,” Seidel said. “At the same time, we are responding to the uptick in cases in Albany County and the state, as well as the highly transmissible Delta variant, to help assure that we can stay in person through the semester and the academic year.
“And, perhaps most importantly, we are doing just about everything we can, short of a mandate, to encourage and incentivize our employees and students to be vaccinated, to protect their individual health and that of the broader community,” he continued.
As of Monday, there are eight active cases of the virus reported by UW’s COVID-19 tracker: five students living off-campus and three employees.
The total number of confirmed COVID cases among UW students and employees since the pandemic began is 2,276. The positivity rate among tests conducted under UW’s random-sample program in the past week is 1.39%.
The Wyoming Department of Health has placed Albany County in the “moderate- to high-transmission levels” category, for which the state health officer recommends mask use for everyone indoors.
At this stage, the university continues to highly encourage but not mandate the COVID vaccine for faculty, staff and students, in concert with a directive from Gov. Mark Gordon.
“The vaccines are proven to be highly safe and effective in preventing infection and serious illness, even for the easily transmissible Delta variant,” Seidel said. “It remains our sincere hope that all of our employees and students who are medically able will choose to be vaccinated. We intend to provide our students and employees with every opportunity to receive the vaccine, and to provide accurate information to help everyone make the best decisions for themselves.”
UW requires all faculty, staff and students who are vaccinated to report their vaccinations to allow the university to track overall vaccination numbers. Additionally, those who report vaccinations become eligible for weekly prize drawings.
As of Monday, 2,876 individual students had reported receiving at least one dose of a COVID vaccine on the Student Health Service portal, up from 2,721 on Aug. 2, and up from the 1,665 reporting before the incentive program was announced July 9.
Also as of Monday, 2,121 of UW’s 2,880 benefited employees, 73.6%, have reported receiving at least one dose of the vaccines. Adding in non-benefited employees, some of whom are students, 3,252 of UW’s 5,851 total employees, 55.5%, have reported receiving at least one dose.
“Quite frankly, the current percentages are much lower than we would like to see, but we are optimistic that they will continue to increase,” Seidel said. “Our student incentive program, in particular, offers some excellent extra motivation to report vaccinations. And we’ll be looking at ways to augment the incentives for our community. The single most important thing one can do to protect one’s health, and to help us all pull out of this pandemic, is to get vaccinated.”
UW also is participating in an Albany County vaccination incentive program that will launch soon and be open to all employees and students.