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Stories, Stats, Impacts: Wyoming Public Media is here to keep you current on the news surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

The University of Wyoming decides not to test returning students and employees for coronavirus

Close up of a lab technician marking small vials for Coronavirus testing.
Natalie Kolb
Commonwealth Media Services

The University of Wyoming (UW) announced last week that it will not require members of the campus community to get tested for COVID-19 before returning for the spring semester, reversing its previous plans.

"A lot of it has to do with logistical issues," said College of Health Sciences Dean David Jones. "Safety was a big one because we know that the omicron variant is definitely here in Albany County, it's around the state. The number of cases in Albany County is climbing pretty drastically. It's more highly transmissible than the other variants."

Jones oversees the university's testing program. He said because of the increased transmissibility of omicron, they thought it could do more harm than good to gather people together for testing by potentially helping the virus spread. The pooled testing technique they use could also have created issues, he added.

"In the past, when we had such a low positivity rate, it made sense to do that. With this one, it was likely that the majority of the pools were going to come back positive, which meant people would come back for a second time, potentially long lines, creating, again, another safety issue," he said.

But UW public health researcher Christine Porter said the university could use methods other than pooled testing, and host testing events more safely. In any case, she said, omicron is no excuse to drop mandatory testing.

"So instead we're going to have a mass event in every classroom, with everyone there not knowing if they're positive or not?" she said. "That is palpably ridiculous. I'm horrified."

Jones said at-home testing like the Vault Health tests they used at the beginning of the pandemic would cost too much and take too long to get results to be useful. He said individually testing everyone and processing results at the Wyoming State Vet Lab, where the current UW tests are processed, would also cause logistical problems.

"I think people need to realize that the testing that they've been doing for COVID has basically [been] a side responsibility," he said. "They have a lot of other things they need to be doing."

He said the data they're using shows that omicron is causing spikes in cases but that the spikes are relatively short-lived.

"I think the assumption is it's here, and we expect that the first three to four weeks of the semester, there will likely be a lot of student absences, perhaps staff absences, faculty absences," Jones said.

Jones added they expect cases will drop back down by the end of February. He said the university community has adapted well during the pandemic, and he's confident they will continue to do so.

But Porter said the university's decision not to test is "ridiculous."

"Testing is crucial so people know that they're positive," she said. "It's easy to be asymptomatic. The idea that because it's spread so far, we should just let it go is almost insane. I really can't believe it."

The university's plan is especially reckless right now, Porter said, as omicron is far more transmissible than earlier variants and will mean serious illness or death for some of those who catch it.

"Omicron seems to prove to have been much less dangerous than previous variants to our health in terms of hospitalization," Porter said. "However, because it spreads so much more virulently, when you have that many more cases, even if a smaller percentage is going to be seriously harmed or hospitalized or even killed, your total numbers going to the hospital are still going to [go up], and are already overwhelming our healthcare systems."

Jones said that the UW COVID Advisory Group is following CDC guidelines and taking into account what other health officials are saying. But they'll also have to rethink how the university responds to future case numbers.

"There were a series of triggers that if we hit those numbers that we would go virtual - I think we're going to have to rethink those. We haven't really discussed those specific items that are the triggers that might spur us moving to virtual again, since we're moving towards management if we can," Jones said. "I think that's how we're going to try to move forward with this."

He said he doesn't see a lot of enthusiasm for going completely virtual, so unless things get out of hand, they don't plan to recommend that.

Jones said to help the university move into managing the virus versus just containing it, people need to continue to wear masks. He added that there are plans to replace the surgical masks currently available for free throughout campus with KN95 masks, which have been shown to be among the most effective against the omicron variant. But the biggest thing he recommends is getting vaccinated and boosted as soon as possible.

"The more and more there's a need for boosters, the farther and farther you get behind if you haven't had your first vaccine, so people need to really get out and please get vaccinated - that will just help the community in so many ways," he said.

Additionally, UW has eliminated the quarantine requirement for people who have gotten their booster shot and have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

UW will continue to test a random three percent of the campus community on a weekly basis this semester, like they did last semester.

Ivy started as a science news intern in the summer of 2019 and has been hooked on broadcast ever since. Her internship was supported by the Wyoming EPSCoR Summer Science Journalism Internship program. In the spring of 2020, she virtually graduated from the University of Wyoming with a B.S. in biology with minors in journalism and business. When she’s not writing for WPR, she enjoys baking, reading, playing with her dog, and caring for her many plants.
Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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