University of Wyoming student Daniel Wenger, a mechanical engineering and energy information systems student from Vail, Colorado, studies on campus in November 2020. (University of Wyoming)

UPDATE: The Wyoming Department of Health confirmed the state’s first case of the Omicron variant Friday in an Albany County adult with recent domestic travel. A University of Wyoming lab initially identified the case, according to WDH. Ed.

University of Wyoming trustees voted Wednesday to extend the school’s masking requirements at least until February amid uncertainty about how the burgeoning omicron variant of COVID-19 will impact Wyoming.

UW’s COVID-19 testing revealed what may be Wyoming’s first confirmed case of the omicron variant on Wednesday morning, College of Health Sciences Dean David Jones told the trustees.

Both Jones and Wyoming Department of Health spokeswoman Kim Deti stressed there needs to be additional analysis of the sample to confirm the presence of the variant.

“The sequencing necessary to identify variants is a technically complex process,” Deti wrote in an email. “While we do not have an official regulatory role in this situation, as the state’s public health authority we feel the need to review a result of this potential significance and follow up with the potential case individual before confirmation. There has not been an opportunity for that to happen yet.”

Trustees’ support for continuing a mask requirement has been fading in recent months. However, members on Wednesday defeated a competing motion to end the mask mandate at the end of December on a 7-4 vote.

UW will require all employees and students to be tested for COVID-19 at the start of the spring semester, and will continue to test 3% of the campus population weekly for the rest of the semester.

At least for the start of 2022, the university’s masking requirements will be unchanged, requiring everyone on campus to wear masks indoors except when social distancing is possible. Masks are not required at voluntary events, like basketball games.

During the Wednesday trustees meeting, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow criticized UW’s masking rules for creating incongruences she described as “sometimes laughable,” like the Dec. 11 indoor commencement ceremony, which nearly all graduates attended maskless.

Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow speaks during a press conference in 2020. (Micheal Pearlman/office of Gov. Mark Gordon)

Balow advocated the university drop masking requirements next semester, noting that only one of Wyoming’s 48 school districts — Cheyenne’s — is continuing a masking requirement into 2022.

The number of COVID-19 cases on campus has dropped significantly in recent weeks. The university averaged a few dozen confirmed cases for most of the semester, but reported just eight confirmed cases as of Monday. Since Thanksgiving break, fewer than 1% of individuals that UW tested returned a positive result.

However, UW officials warned trustees that the new omicron variant, coupled with increased travel during the winter break, means the campus could see a spike in cases at the start of the spring semester. If there is such a spike, UW officials stressed that requiring masks at least until the trustees’ Feb. 16 meeting could help avoid an outbreak severe enough to merit a return to all-online coursework.

While trustees ultimately approved that plan, they did rebuff administrators’ request to require COVID-19 vaccinations for employees at all of UW’s health care facilities, like Student Health Services and the clinics the university operates in Casper, Cheyenne and Laramie.

Daniel Bendtsen is a freelance journalist living in Green River. He previously spent five years working at the Riverton Ranger and Laramie Boomerang. Originally from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Bendtsen...

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  1. Not sure how effective mandates will be. Students still go maskless when away from UW.

    And let the record show that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday recommended that Covid vaccines other than Johnson & Johnson’s should be preferred according to the New York Times on 12-16-21.

    New data showed that there was a higher risk for a blood clotting condition than previously known. The risk was greatest among women aged 30 to 49, estimated at 1 in 100,000 who had received the company’s shot. At least 9 deaths. Not a lot but certainly not 100% safe & effective. Try another shot as a booster.