Wyo schools, Legislature make few changes as omicron spreads

The highly transmissible omicron variant is driving another uptick in Wyoming COVID-19 infections, according to the Wyoming Department of Health. From schools to lawmakers, state institutions are so far taking a wait-and-see approach to addressing the latest pandemic twist. 

As of Jan. 9 the state’s seven-day average of confirmed cases was 511, more than double the average reported on the first of the month. The DOH did not have a prediction for how the omicron wave might play out, but reiterated earlier messages about vaccination.  

“We are currently seeing big jumps in Wyoming’s case counts again, likely due to the omicron variant,” Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state epidemiologist, stated in a Friday press release. “This is again not like the COVID-19 we have become familiar with because it spreads much more easily between people.” 

That has yet to translate to more hospitalizations, however, according to Eric Boley, president of the Wyoming Hospital Association. “We’re actually not seeing a huge spike in  [hospitalized] cases right now, at least over the last little while,” Boley said on Friday. “It’s actually been declining over the last couple of weeks.”

Evidence suggests omicron is less severe than variants like delta. 

“Our hospitals are prepared right now for whatever comes,” Boley said.“We’re entering our third year of this now, there’s no new preparation. We’re constantly at the ready in case we do see a spike.”

When asked if Gov. Mark Gordon’s office had any plans for addressing the new variant, spokesman Michael Pearlman responded via email. 

“While it’s still unclear what the exact impact of the omicron variant will be on Wyoming hospitals, during past surges the Governor has deployed the National Guard to provide assistance in healthcare facilities and has allocated federal funding (CARES/ARPA funding) to help alleviate staffing shortfalls,” Pearlman wrote. “Both of those strategies could potentially be utilized again.”

The University of Wyoming initially planned to test all students and faculty upon returning to campus, but announced last week it is canceling mandatory mass testing and opting instead for a “management” strategy.

“Having thousands of people in a confined area over a short period of days, submitting saliva samples, creates a potential place that you could have spread,” said Chad Baldwin, spokesman for the university. 

UW will return to fully in-person courses this month. “As of now, I just don’t think that’s changing,” Baldwin said. The university will continue to require masks indoors through Feb. 6, continue weekly random-sample testing and continue to make optional testing available.

School districts across Wyoming are forging their own approach to the new variant. In Albany County School District 1, for example, the board decided to move from requiring masks to making them “strongly recommended,” according to Sean O’Sullivan, the communications specialist for the district. 

When asked if there is a plan if omicron cases spike, O’Sullivan said, “at this point, we don’t have a lot of concern about that.”

The Wyoming Legislature’s Management Council last week briefly discussed plans for holding another pandemic-era session. The session will be streamed, though lawmakers will need to be present to participate in committee meetings. No other coronavirus-related measures have been instituted at this point. 

Matt Obrecht, director of the Legislative Service Office, told the committee his office is working on having enough staff available should a number of them fall ill or need to quarantine. 

“We’re certainly not done with the COVID-19 pandemic yet,” he said. “As we get closer to session, of course, the picture of COVID-19 infections in the state will become clearer and what precautions may need to be taken.”

However, any significant policy change — such as a delayed or virtual-only session — would need a rule change. Because it is a budget session, that would require a two-thirds supermajority vote. 

Dr. Mark Dowell, Natrona County Health Officer, is concerned about what’s to come. “We’re just at the tip of this. We typically run behind a lot of the country, we did with the delta variant,” Dowell said. Last week, the Natrona County Health Department tested 150 people and a third of them were positive, he said. “That is extremely high.”

Although omicron appears to be a milder variant, he said, he is still anticipating hospitalization increases in about two to four weeks. 

Access to testing also concerns Dowell.“We’re starting to run low,” he said. He fears that his county will not only have to ration tests, but medications for COVID-19 patients as well. Staff are burnt out, vaccination rates don’t seem to be on the rise and enduring yet another wave of the virus amidst a shortage of healthcare workers is taking an emotional toll, he said.  

“We can’t budge the fully vaccinated statistics in this state. We can’t get anybody new to vaccinate. It is so frustrating,” Dowell said. 

“Getting vaccinated and getting booster doses if eligible is most important at this point,” Kim Deti, public information officer for the Wyoming Department of Health, wrote in an email. Aside from inoculation, the department recommends that those with symptoms stay home and people wear well-fitting masks in public indoor spaces.