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State furloughs will impact lab staff processing coronavirus samples, employee says
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State furloughs will impact lab staff processing coronavirus samples, employee says

Virus Outbreak Wyoming

Testing for novel coronavirus is ongoing at the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory in Cheyenne.

Staff members at the the Wyoming Public Health Laboratory, who have been processing hundreds of coronavirus samples each day, are set to be part of the government-wide furloughs that will begin next month, an employee said on social media this week.

Noah Hull, who works in the lab, tweeted Tuesday that he and others will be furloughed starting in August.

“We were notified (Monday) that employees making $65K/year or higher, ... which is a handful of lab folks and (epidemiology) folks, will be furloughed,” he tweeted to the Star-Tribune. “It will be 1 day/month ... and is set to last for a minimum of 6 months.”

Hull, who declined to comment further Wednesday, added that the furloughs were “not huge, but (staff are) still not getting work done.”

Michael Pearlman, a spokesman for Gov. Mark Gordon, told the Star-Tribune that state furloughs “could include some employees at the public health lab.”

“The furloughs will be implemented in a manner that should have minimal impact on the operations of the lab or the State’s COVID-19 testing capacity,” he said in an email.

Gordon announced earlier this week that he was instituting “a mandatory furlough day for six months ... for those executive branch employees on the higher end of the pay scale.” He also moved to consolidate human resources personnel under the umbrella of the Department of Administration and Information.

Gordon indicated that cuts, necessary to chip away at a massive funding deficit the state is facing, “will include state employees losing their jobs.” The Department of Health is preparing plans to cut at least $90 million. It’s unclear what exactly in the agency will be slashed; while Gordon has mentioned a few proposed reductions, the department has yet to release its own list.

At a press conference Wednesday, Gordon said the state is “evaluating the continuity of various programs” and that he didn’t “want to compromise the public health lab.” But he said that he’s asked everyone in government to “pull our own weight in the boat” and to “respectfully to try to contribute to the process.”

He added that he “certainly” didn’t want the state to fall behind in addressing the pandemic or testing samples and fall behind other states that are facing surges in caseloads.

A Health Department spokeswoman declined to comment Wednesday on the furloughs to lab workers. It’s unclear if the furloughs will apply to contact tracers, who work to map the spread of the coronavirus across communities and groups. Nor is it clear if it will apply to Dr. Alexia Harrist, the state health officer, and to what extent it will affect the epidemiology unit at the department.

The spokeswoman said she had no additional information beyond what the governor had released.

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The state health lab, together with private labs, has processed tens of thousands of samples since mid-March. The lab has significantly grown its testing capabilities, and it’s pulled in more staff from the University of Wyoming. UW spokesman Chad Baldwin said there were still university employees at the lab but that they likely wouldn’t be subject to the furloughs because they’re on the university, not the state, payroll.

Still, the trimming of hours at the lab comes as Wyoming continues to see a spike in cases and the lab regularly processes hundreds of samples each day. The state recently signed a contract with a California-based startup to process another 50,000 tests, a few thousand fewer than the state and private labs have processed since mid-March. Health officials indicated that the contract would be used to supplement the state lab.

The overall cuts to the Health Department come just a few years after the agency had to cut $90 million as part of the last revenue debacle. Reductions in the department have aftershocks: The agency’s budget is boosted by matching funds from the federal government, so when state money drops, so, too, does the matching funds from the feds.

Health Department spokeswoman Kim Deti said that the last round of cuts cost the agency an additional $40 million in matching funds from the feds.

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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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