A Tyrannosaurus rex statue overlooks an empty University of Wyoming campus in April 2020 after the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools statewide. UW, which planned to resume some in-person education on Sept. 7, paused its plan after new infections of students and staff mounted during the first two weeks of school. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Despite improvements in the state’s primary COVID-19 metrics this week, Wyoming officials held off celebrating as they kept close watch on case counts in the wake of Labor Day and the reopening of the state’s schools. 

The University of Wyoming, meanwhile, pushed out its reopening plan until at least next week to get a clearer sense of the virus’s prevalence among students and staff.  

The state’s percentage of total tests to come back positive, which has been trending downward for weeks, is now just 1.6%, Gov. Mark Gordon said during a Wednesday press conference

The average number of new daily lab-confirmed cases has also fallen in the last two weeks, Gordon said, from 35 to 25 per day. The Department of Health reported zero deaths this week, and hospitalizations decreased to 11 by Thursday afternoon, down from 16 last week. 

“This is good news,” Gordon said. 

Good enough news that the state upgraded its positive test rate metric to “improving,” and will allow some public health orders to expire Sept. 15, Gordon said. The state is also considering resuming indoor sports and other school competitions, he said.  

Instead of making further decisions on health orders just yet, however, officials are waiting to determine if there’s fallout from the Labor Day holiday or the reopening of the state’s schools, Gordon said. 

“We want to make sure we ease into this in a very methodical way,” he said. 

Wyoming’s lab-confirmed caseload reached 3,559 by Friday morning with 225 added this week. That’s 57 more new cases than were added the previous week. Total recoveries reached 3,029. The number grew by 240, 37 more than the previous week. 

The state’s death count is 42. That includes the death of an older Natrona County man that was reported late last week. 

Known active cases of the disease — the number of people officials believe are fighting infections but haven’t yet recovered — dropped to 604 by Friday morning, according to Wyoming Department of Health numbers. That’s a decrease of four from last Friday. 

At UW, officials extended a pause in the school’s reopening plan until Sept. 14. The university had started a phased reopening Aug. 24 with plans to resume some in-person classes Sept. 7. Those plans were shelved last week in response to mounting cases, which were largely traced to off-campus gatherings. 

UW announced this week it would extend the pause to give school leaders the opportunity to understand the extent of any further transmission over the Labor Day weekend and make sure no significant outbreaks are unfolding.

“While we continue to detect new cases — which is worrisome — the pause has enabled us to effectively slow the spread of the virus,” UW President Ed Seidel said in a release. “That provides some encouragement for our ability to resume our fall return plan, but only if what happened over Labor Day weekend does not result in a spike in cases.”

Barring a significant increase in cases, Seidel said Thursday, he intends for the university to move to Phase 2 of its fall return plan Sept. 15. 

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The university reported 66 active cases (mostly off-campus) Thursday afternoon, along with 75 recovered cases and 136 people in quarantine. The school has conducted some 16,000 tests. 

During the pause, the university is suspending face-to-face activities and instructing students in UW campus housing to “shelter in place.” Most campus facilities are closed and students are to be in contact only with others in their “pod.”

What UW has experienced “isn’t that much different from what’s happening elsewhere around the country,” Gordon said. “I think college students are happy to be back in school and maybe a little more careless than they should be.” 

Elsewhere in the state, isolated cases of COVID-19 have popped up in K-12 schools as was expected, State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist said. These include schools in Cody, Riverton and Newcastle. 

But so far, outbreaks have been staunched by responsible action and the practices of social distancing and mask use, Harrist said, and no schools have had to close yet. It’s a good lesson in the importance of continued diligence, she said. 

“I know that people are tired of this pandemic and the precautions it’s made necessary,” Harrist said. “I feel that way too, honestly. But the more careful we are, the sooner we can get to a point where we don’t need any restrictions or public health orders.” 

Katie Klingsporn reports on outdoor recreation, public lands, education and general news for WyoFile. She’s been a journalist and editor covering the American West for 20 years. Her freelance work has...

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