COVID-19’s advance faltered for a second week in Wyoming as the number of active cases dipped back below 500. Gov. Mark Gordon eased statewide health orders for the first time since June 15.  

Still, anxiety is high as two test pieces of resuming operations sit on the state’s doorstep. The state’s primary election is just days away on Aug. 18, and most schools around the state will begin opening their doors for in-person education in the weeks to follow. 

The Department of Health reported just eight new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Saturday, 19 Tuesday and 16 Wednesday. That is a noticeable drop from July’s daily tallies, which broke single-day records several times, peaking at 64 on July 28. 

“What I think this says is that people in Wyoming are taking it seriously,” Gordon said during a Wednesday press conference. “We feel that we may be on kind of the right track.” 

Testing volumes at Wyoming’s state lab are also down slightly, Gordon noted, which could attribute to the lower numbers. 

Known active cases of the disease — the number of people officials believe are fighting infections but haven’t yet recovered — also declined this week. That measure topped 600 in early August, but declined to 490 by Friday morning. The percentage of tests to come back positive, measured by a two-week rolling average, fell to 2.8% from slightly over 3%. Hospitalizations also dropped, hitting 13 on Friday. 

And while the state didn’t upgrade any of its five COVID-19 metrics to “improving,” Gordon did ease restrictions on outdoor gatherings — allowing up to 1,000 people to convene. 

“After seeing outdoor events, including rodeos, occur without corresponding spikes in case numbers, it seemed only appropriate that we expand the number of people permitted to gather for outdoor events,” Gordon said. 

All told, Wyoming’s total lab-confirmed caseload reached 2,627 by Friday morning with 203 added in the last week. Total recoveries grew by 218 from last week to 2,187. 

The state’s death toll reached 30 as the Department of Health announced two new deaths. The first involved an older Uinta County man who had been hospitalized and had health conditions recognized as putting patients at higher risk of complications. The second, announced Thursday, involved an older Big Horn County man who also had underlying health conditions, DOH reports. He had been hospitalized in another state. 

Many eyes are on the state’s schools and colleges as they prepare to open for the fall. 

Wyoming’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow said Wednesday that she expects most of the state’s schools to start in “Tier 1” models, which entail in-person instruction, modified for safety. 

“Our goal, of course, is to open and remain in Tier 1 for as much of the school year as possible,” Balow said. 

In-person instruction will look different, Balow said; orders require at a minimum that students keep six feet apart, and when that can’t happen, that they and teachers wear masks.

At least five districts, including four on the Wind River Indian Reservation, are opting not to have students return to schools, and are proceeding with virtual or hybrid models. Twelve of the state’s COVID-related fatalities, or 40%, have been residents of the reservation. 

Teachers will have the option to be part of mass-testing surveillance conducted by the state, Gordon announced Wednesday. Details were scant, but officials said it would be akin to the state’s other surveillance testing of densely populated facilities. 

When asked if she expects upticks in connection with school reopenings, State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist said that while she believes there will be some cases among students and staff, “I wouldn’t say that I expect an overall increase that is directly caused by or connected to schools. The measures that we have put into place are meant to prevent that from happening.”  

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At the University of Wyoming, officials revised opening plans in favor of a phased approach that delays bringing students back to campus. All courses will be conducted online beginning Aug. 24 and continuing until Sept. 7, when some in-person instruction will begin

UW football players and fans were dealt a blow this week when the Cowboys’ season was called off, the Casper Star-Tribune reports

But some good news arrived for the state’s college students: Gordon announced the creation of a new fund to help students who have been impacted by the pandemic. He has allocated an initial $50 million to the program, which aims to cover expenses such as housing and meals for students at UW and other colleges. 

Katie Klingsporn

Katie Klingsporn is WyoFile's managing editor. She is a journalist and word geek who has been writing about life in the West for 15 years. Her pieces have appeared in Adventure Journal, National Geographic...

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