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Wyoming middle blocker Faith Waitsman extends for the ball during a match against Utah State last season at the UniWyo Sports Complex in Laramie.

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Legislative task force recommends payments to University of Wyoming, community college students

A legislative task force recommended Friday that University of Wyoming students receive a $6,500 payment and community college students receive money to offset the cost of attendance in a bid to boost enrollment at Wyoming’s higher-education institutions.

“This is an exceptional approach and one of the best prospective uses of money that we’ve identified for the CARES funding because it really enables something,” Sen. Chris Rothfuss, a Laramie Democrat who works at the university, said during the Tomorrow Task Force’s meeting Friday. “It’s important for the people of Wyoming and state itself.”

The plan, pushed by House Speaker Steve Harshman, would be accessible to all U.S. citizens attending one of the seven community colleges or the university. As written, the bill would require students to apply and for them to comply with their individuals institutions’ safety protocols, like wearing face masks or social distancing.

The plan would spend $116 million of the state’s federal stimulus money, which totaled $1.25 billion when it came in earlier this spring. Of that, $40 million would go to the colleges, while the remaining $66 million would fund the UW payment program.

A primary goal of the plan would be to shore up plummeting enrollment at the university and colleges; students and their families have been hit hard by the effects of the pandemic. The university is projecting enrollment to be down 20%, while the colleges face a 30% overall drop, lawmakers said Friday. That drop in revenue represents not just empty classrooms but emptier coffers for the schools, who will already be facing a budget deficit because of overall state revenue declines.

Ed Seidel, newly appointed UW president, told the committee that the drop in students is heavy for freshmen, and other lawmakers warned that if those younger students couldn’t be retained, they likely won’t return to campus later on. He and Dr. Sandy Caldwell, the head of the state Community College Commission, said that the students who were still enrolled were signing up for fewer classes, indicating a stretching of financial resources.

There was some debate about how exactly the money can be spent — the federal government’s stimulus money comes with strings attached — but the plan largely remained the same: $6,500 to UW students, or $3,250 if they’re only attending one semester. Community college students would receive enough to cover their tuition and fees.

There was little opposition to the proposal at Friday’s meeting. Republican Rep. Albert Sommers advocated for a “means test,” meaning that only students who need the money to continue would get it. But Harshman pointed out that the state has been indiscriminately doling out large sums of stimulus money to businesses that are owned by multimillionaires and may have locations outside of Wyoming.

He added that the money was targeted to families and students, many of whom are hurting.

There was also brief discussion on whether to isolate the money to only Wyoming residents. But officials noted that Colorado has invested $400 million in similar boosts to its educational system, which is likely helping Wyomingites studying there. A similar payment program in Wyoming, supporters said, would keep Wyoming competitive and would return the favor Colorado is giving to Wyoming students there.

Rep. Cathy Connolly and Rothfuss moved to strip the requirement that recipients be U.S. citizens so that international students could partake, but that amendment was quickly and overwhelmingly shot down.

The task force is not capable of sponsoring its own legislation, so its vote to support the program is little more than a recommendation — or, as Connolly said after, “advice” — to other committees or to the governor. But the federal coronavirus relief funds that this program would use must be spent by the end of December; the next scheduled legislative session won’t begin until after that deadline.

So, if Wyoming is to institute the payments, it’ll have to find a way to do so soon. Not only is the December deadline looming, but school is set to start again in the coming weeks. Connolly told the Star-Tribune that there could be another special session. She also said Gov. Mark Gordon had the ability to move the program along without an up-or-down vote by the Legislature.

Ali Pousha holds hands with Riley Pousha, 4, and Nora Foltz, 5, during a march against human trafficking Thursday on Second Street in Casper. Ali Pousha created a Casper chapter of Operation Underground Railroad, a group with the goal of abolishing human trafficking and child slavery. Thursday was World Day Against Trafficking, and similar marches were held around the world.

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Democratic candidates for House face off in first debate ahead of primary

Two of the three Democratic candidates vying for the chance to run against Rep. Liz Cheney this fall met onstage for their first televised debate Thursday night.

In an abbreviated, half-hour affair, Saratoga’s Carl Beach and Fort Washakie’s Lynnette Grey Bull — a member of the Hunkpapa Lakota and Northern Arapaho tribes — faced off on a series of topics including the nation’s response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and whether social justice concerns should play a greater role in the federal government.

Carol Hafner — an out-of-state candidate who has already been cut off from financial support by the state Democratic Party — did not attend, citing concerns about the coronavirus and a lack of internet bandwidth where she was located.

While the significantly shortened debate offered little space for the candidates to differentiate themselves from one another, both expressed the need for increased health care access and for equitable relief as the nation continues to grapple with the fallout of the pandemic.

“This is not an economic concern,” said Beach. “This is an ethical and human rights concern.”

Adjacent to that, Grey Bull — the vice president of the Global Indigenous Council and a driving force behind the state’s newly formed Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Task Force — called for a greater role for social justice in government and, in particular, policy directives to solve issues like pay disparities between men and women and in resolving the concerns of national movements like Black Lives Matter.

“It does not mean your lives don’t matter,” she said. “It means we want an equitable and just society so we can live in justice and peace together.”

While both candidates offer unique platforms — Beach’s a template of Western progressivism and Grey Bull’s with a keen focus on Native issues and the working class — neither candidate had much opportunity to differentiate themselves from one another, standing in agreement on their support of increased spending on social services while cutting military funding. Both supported continuing $600 bonus payments to American workers and agreed that the United States needs to find a way to be tough on China without hurting American workers in the process.

In their closing statements, Beach said American leaders need to rethink our economy and how we treat one another while Grey Bull touted her proven track record on creating change at the tribal, federal and state levels.

“This is what I do,” she said. “I bring everyone to the table.”

No Republican debate

While Rep. Liz Cheney agreed to debate Thursday night, her primary opponent, political newcomer Blake Stanley, declined to participate, leaving voters unlikely to have an opportunity to compare the two in a single forum prior to the Aug. 18 primary election.

Fauci hopeful of vaccine (copy)

WASHINGTON — Dr. Anthony Fauci said Friday that he remains confident that a coronavirus vaccine will be ready by early next year, telling lawmakers that a quarter-million Americans already have volunteered to take part in clinical trials.

But if the future looks encouraging, public health alarms are still going off in the present. Officials testifying with Fauci at a contentious House hearing acknowledged that the U.S. remains unable to deliver all COVID-19 test results within two or three days, and they jointly pleaded with Americans to comply with basic precautions such as wearing masks, avoiding crowds and washing their hands frequently.

Those simple steps can deliver “the same bang for the buck as if we just shut the entire economy down,” said a frustrated Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adding that he has studies to back that up.

Meanwhile, Pharma giants GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi Pasteur announced they will supply 100 million doses of an experimental COVID-19 vaccine to the United States as governments buy up supplies in hopes of securing a candidate that works.

The United States will pay up to $2.1 billion “for development including clinical trials, manufacturing, scale-up and delivery” of the vaccine, the two companies based in Europe said in a statement. Sanofi will get the bulk of the funds.

Looking ahead, Fauci said he’s “cautiously optimistic that we will have a vaccine by the end of this year and as we go into 2021. I don’t think it’s dreaming … I believe it’s a reality (and) will be shown to be reality.” As the government’s top infectious disease expert, Fauci heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Under White House orders, federal health agencies and the Defense Department are carrying out a plan dubbed Operation Warp Speed to deliver 300 million vaccine doses on a compressed timeline. That will happen only after the Food and Drug Administration determines that one or more vaccines are safe and effective. Several candidates are being tested.

Don’t look for a mass nationwide vaccination right away, Fauci told lawmakers. There will be a priority list based on recommendations from scientific advisers. Topping the list could be critical workers, such as medical personnel, or vulnerable groups of people such as older adults with other underlying health problems.

“But ultimately, within a reasonable period of time, the plans now allow for any American who needs a vaccine to get it within the year 2021,” Fauci said.

Fauci, Redfield and Department of Health and Human Services “testing czar” Admiral Brett Giroir testified at a moment when early progress against the coronavirus seems to have been frittered away. High numbers of new cases cloud the nation’s path. The three officials appeared before a special House panel investigating the government’s pandemic response, itself sharply divided along party lines.

Almost 4.5 million Americans have been infected with COVID-19, and more than 150,000 have died. In recent weeks the virus has rebounded in the South and West, and now upticks are being seen in the Midwest. Testing bottlenecks remain a major issue.

Asked if it’s possible to deliver coronavirus test results to patients within 48 to 72 hours, Giroir acknowledged “it is not a possible benchmark we can achieve today given the demand and supply.”

But rapid, widespread testing is critical to containing the pandemic. It makes it easier for public health workers to trace the contacts of an infected person. Delayed test results only allow more people to get infected.

Giroir said a two- to three-day turnaround “is absolutely a benchmark we can achieve moving forward.”

The bitter politics surrounding the U.S. response to the coronavirus were evident at the hearing by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis.

As the health officials testified, President Donald Trump in a tweet repeated a false claim that high numbers of U.S. cases are due to extensive testing. Committee Chairman James Clyburn, D-S.C., tried to enlist Fauci to rebut the president.

During the hearing, Clyburn displayed a chart showing rising cases in the U.S. juxtaposed with lower levels across Europe. That caught the president’s eye.

Trump tweeted: “Somebody please tell Congressman Clyburn, who doesn’t have a clue, that the chart he put up indicating more CASES for the U.S. than Europe, is because we do MUCH MORE testing than any other country in the World.”

Clyburn turned to Fauci for a real-time fact check.

“Now Dr. Fauci,” the chairman intoned, “do you agree with the president’s statement, or do you stand by your previous answer that the difference is caused by multiple factors including the fact that some states did not do a good job of reopening?”

Fauci answered directly.

“I stand by my previous statement that the increase in cases was due to a number of factors,” he said. One was “that in the attempt to reopen, that in some situations, states did not abide strictly by the guidelines that the task force and the White House had put out.”

As coronavirus continues to spread in Wyoming, causes are less centralized

As the novel coronavirus continues to spike through the summer, health officials from across Wyoming say the spread can’t be attributed to large clusters but rather to small gatherings and younger people.

During the initial wave of the virus across the state, cases could often be linked to a jumping-off point: Fremont County, which remains the hardest-hit county, had the first outbreak at an assisted-living facility, which spread outward and affected tribal members in large households. Casper had a large share of its early cases attributed to an outbreak at Wyoming Behavioral Institute. Teton County officials said its early spread likely came from interstate travel. Several cases and deaths were linked to a Worland nursing home. A gathering at bar in Uinta County led to scores of cases.

Now, as the virus’s spread surged in July, officials say the source is more diffuse. Jodie Pond, who runs Teton County’s health department, said community spread from gatherings and from travel is becoming more common there. Teton County had an early surge in cases before leveling off in May and June.

But their caseload has climbed again; as of Friday afternoon, it stands at just under 300, the third-highest number of cases in the state. A Harvard Global Health Initiative tool placed Teton County in its highest risk category, the only one in Wyoming and one of a handful in the Rockies.

“We do not have one particular thing we can identify as an ‘outbreak,’” Pond wrote in an email. “We have cases due to community spread, travel related (both visitors and locals travelling) and a large number of cases in the under 30 demographic.”

According to county data, 157 of Teton County’s confirmed patients are younger than 30. Statewide, 41% of confirmed patients are under 30. The age demographics have skewed younger throughout the summer; in mid-June, for instance, the under-30 demographic still represented a plurality, but the other age groups were closer than they are now. It was similarly close in May.

Pond added that the spread in the under-30 demographic could be linked to “small BBQs, after hours parties” and other social gatherings.

Kim Deti, spokeswoman for the state Health Department, said the same is true generally statewide. She said the new cases are often a mix of “bars or places, churches, gatherings.” She said there had been a good mix of community spread — meaning cases that can’t necessarily be traced to one single source.

That sentiment was echoed again by Hailey Bloom, a spokeswoman for the Casper-Natrona County Health Department.

Spread hasn’t “necessarily (been) linked to one specific gathering, activity or event but rather a group of households (family, friends, coworkers, etc.) coming together and one person may not yet be symptomatic but within that contagious period,” Bloom wrote in an email. “These don’t seem to be really large gatherings, events or activities but more like a group of ~10-20 people going camping together, having a BBQ, a birthday party, etc. Of course if someone is contagious but not yet symptomatic, is around a group, even of that size and others catch it and the same type of scenario repeats on and on — you can see how it can get multiple layers deep pretty quick.”

Though Uinta County had a large spread from one single bar, a health official there told the Star-Tribune earlier this summer that the initial spike there could be attributed to a series of gatherings around Memorial Day weekend. In late May, a sudden spike in Albany County — which until that point had largely been spared — was linked to graduation parties, camping trips and other gatherings.

Messages sent to health officials in other hot spots — Uinta, Sweetwater, Fremont and Laramie counties — were not returned this week.

In total, 1,070 cases were confirmed in Wyoming in July — more than 47% of the state’s total since the pandemic was first identified. For comparison, in June, the next highest month, 491 cases were confirmed in Wyoming.