University Of Wyoming COVID-19 Testing Efforts May Be Missing People

Oct 9, 2020

At the start of the semester, the University of Wyoming decided to proceed with a hybrid of online and in-person classes. The plan was that everybody who works on campus was tested before the semester started and no students were allowed on campus until they passed an initial test. The other part of the plan is randomized testing of students and staff now that they're on campus. If there's an outbreak, classes could be pushed to online immediately.

The campus community was told that everyone on campus would be tested every couple of weeks. But testing has been unequally distributed. Some in the campus community have been tested every week since returning while some have only been tested for the initial test. "It's not truly randomized," said College of Health Sciences Dean David Jones. "And we've been hearing that as well. People have said, 'Well, I've been selected every week, how's that random?' I think that term maybe was misused. It's a bridge sampling of everyone who's in the pool, and so everyone's invited to it."

Jones is overseeing the testing program. According to him, the pool is actually made up of those who are unable to socially distance while on campus.

"So, there are people who are on campus who don't need to be tested because they are not, at least on campus, in a situation where there is maybe a risk of exposure because they're not around anybody," Jones said. "If a person is on campus, but they go to their office, and there's no one around them all day long, and then they go home at the end of the day, they would not be included in the pool of people to be tested because they are masked and socially distant."

Despite disproportionate testing, the program has already caught several small outbreaks among student groups on campus, prompting targeted actions to contain the virus. One example was when the College of Law had an outbreak and was forced to move classes online.

With most classes open, there has been a surge in cases from the general campus community to even a group of freshmen football players. But Jones is hopeful that if people follow the rules, those increases will be minimized.

With an increase of people on campus, the UW testing space was moved to allow for more tests and better social distancing.
Credit Ivy Engel

"As long as everybody is following those guidelines, we would hope to not see a huge uptick in the number of cases that maybe we have in the UW community," he said. "So, to a great extent it's up to the individual to follow the guidelines, so that we can hopefully stay open for the rest of the semester."

There remains overwhelming support of the testing program.

Up until now, the university has been using tests from an external company. To cut down on time to get results and cost, sample processing will soon be moved to the Wyoming State Vet Lab (WSVL). UW had hoped to implement this when students officially returned to campus, which was known as Phase Three.

"Originally, the intention was that we would be doing the testing here when we switched over to Phase Three. But there's been a problem in getting reagents. And so we're not ready to do the high volume testing yet," said Veterinary Diagnostic Pathologist at the WSVL Donal O'Toole.

O'Toole said they're planning to start processing tests in mid-October. Up until now, he's been tested every week and said the program, while slightly inconvenient, is better than several other programs in the region and will keep the university safely operating.

"We're in a kind of a very small, intimate state. And if we lose a student, or lose a faculty member or staff member, that's going to be big, big news," said O'Toole. "And there's going to be parents pulling up outside the dorms, throwing their kids in cars and heading home. And I think that's what the administration, upper administration, is really trying to avoid."

One thing that remains a challenge at the university and throughout the state is trying to keep numbers in check while more venues and facilities are being reopened. Officials including the governor, the state health officer, and the university president are more or less begging people to wear masks, wash their hands, and maintain a safe social distance.

Governor Gordon said that he fears major economic impacts if the numbers don't improve. UW President Ed Seidel is already facing major budget cuts due to the pandemic and those cuts will be much worse if it impacts the spring semester. In the meantime, Seidel is trying hard to avoid a shutdown before the on-campus semester ends in November.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Ivy Engel, at iengel@uwyo.edu.