Nearly 50 UW students quarantined because of coronavirus

CASPER — COVID-19 infections stemming from University of Wyoming students gathering off campus have led the school to quarantine nearly 50 students since Monday.

Seven students have tested positive this week as a result of the gatherings, including three reported Tuesday, and 47 students are being quarantined. If five or more students and employees in Laramie test positive for the virus in a single day, the university will implement its recently announced plan to pause its phased return to the fall semester.

Officials fear that could happen before in-person learning even begins.

Some of the quarantined students are in Greek Life housing, while others live elsewhere off campus. The school did not specify the types of gatherings that led to the infections.

Earlier this week, UW announced its plans for such a pause, should it become necessary because of a coronavirus outbreak. While this week’s cases do not yet trigger that pause, school leaders “warn that could be the case in the coming days as testing of the individual participants continues,” according to a Tuesday evening announcement.

There are currently 28 active COVID-19 cases at the university, and an additional eight students and one employee have exhibited symptoms and are awaiting test results. In total, 78 people tied to the university have tested positive since the pandemic began.

“Working with the Wyoming Department of Health, we have done our best to isolate those who’ve tested positive and quarantine those with whom they’ve had close contact,” first-year President Ed Seidel said in a statement. “Our hope is that these actions will allow us to move forward with our plans for in-person, on-campus experiences this fall, but ultimately it will be up to every member of the UW community to exercise personal responsibility to limit the spread of the virus.

“With our rigorous program of testing, tracing and quarantine, we still have an opportunity to have a successful semester — but only if we all do what we know we should: avoid large gatherings, wear face protection, practice physical distancing and follow proper hygiene measures,” he continued. “If you fail to follow this guidance and come into contact with an infected individual, you could face a 14-day quarantine as required by the Department of Health to protect our entire community.”

The school’s Board of Trustees approved a COVID-19 contingency plan that outlines metrics that would have to be reached before a pause would take place. The school did not specify the metrics in a Monday announcement, but a news release Tuesday said that five positive tests in a single day would trigger the plan. If a pause is necessary before this weekend, students will still be allowed to move in to residence halls on schedule.

“We urge students to refrain from gathering in large groups, on campus or off campus, where physical distancing cannot be met,” Dean of Students Ryan O’Neil said in Tuesday’s announcement. “The stakes are high, and the behavior of one person can have impacts for many.”

The students involved could face punishment. Those who hosted or attended gatherings will be put on interim suspension, meaning that they will have their access to the campus temporarily restricted and they will not be able to attend classes until their conduct cases are resolved, the school said. All involved students will be referred to the Dean of Students Office, which could result in the following punishments:

  • “Students hosting gatherings may be suspended or permanently dismissed;
  • “Students attending gatherings may be placed on conduct probation or suspended;
  • “Students who host or attend ‘COVID parties’ with the expressed intention of spreading the virus may be permanently dismissed from the university.”

A stoppage would last five business days during which university leaders would collect more information on the state of the outbreak. During those five days, students would be instructed to shelter in place, all classes would be held online, all employees would work remotely (except for those deemed “critical pause personnel”) and all face-to-face activities would be suspended unless approval is given. Seidel would decide the next steps, which could include returning to the phased return plan or keeping classes fully online, according to the announcement.

“In many respects, a pause would be similar to the actions the university took when the pandemic hit in March, with one major exception: We would ask our students to stay put for five business days, in the hope that the pause could be lifted,” Seidel said. “We believe it could be possible to resume our fall return plan after a pause, based upon our rigorous testing, tracing and quarantine protocols and what we’re seeing at some other universities that have taken a similar approach.”

The university would instruct students only to be in contact with members of their “pods” — either students on their dorm floor or those living in the same place — during the pause.

UW Residence Life and Dining Services is planning potential food service and activities for residence hall students if a pause becomes necessary.

“From both public health and academic standpoints, we’d ask our students in the residence halls to hang in there during a pause,” Vice President for Student Affairs Kim Chestnut said. “This shelter-in-place approach would only be temporary, and we would know within five days whether we’re resuming our phased return plan or going fully online as we did in the spring.”

Laboratories and research facilities could continue work during a stoppage, though they would reduce personnel as they did in the spring. UW’s Early Care and Education Center would also continue operations.

Surveillance testing would not change during a pause.

Online courses began Aug. 24 for the university, which initially planned to begin the semester in person. On-campus learning will resume for some on Monday, and all classes that are set to be held in person are expected to have students back by Sept. 28.