Dane County saw 456 new coronavirus cases Wednesday, hitting a new single-day record in the ongoing pandemic.
The “dramatic” spike came nine days after UW-Madison students returned to campus and followed a Wednesday evening decision to move to online classes for the next two weeks and to quarantine two residence halls.
“We anticipate that as many as 85% of these cases are UW affiliated,” Public Health Madison & Dane County director Janel Heinrich said at a press conference Thursday, noting that the agency is evaluating data to determine just how many of the new cases are related to UW-Madison.
Public Health spokesperson Sarah Mattes said of the 456 new cases, 86% were people between the ages of 18 and 22. Data from last week showed that of 901 new cases, approximately 71% of people who tested positive for the virus were UW students or staff.
To date, there are a total of 7,012 coronavirus cases in Dane County, 342 hospitalizations and 41 deaths. Heinrich said hospitalizations and deaths lag behind new cases. The last daily high record of new cases was 195 cases on Sept. 6.
“We hope that everything that is happening right now will support keeping transmission contained,” Heinrich said.
Last week, PHMDC issued quarantine notices to over 400 UW-Madison fraternity and sorority members due to outbreaks within their chapter houses. On Sept. 7, UW-Madison restricted movement to only essential activities before implementing the more aggressive measures Wednesday.
But sending students home may not be the best option.
Because of the connection between the case spike and UW-Madison, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi sent a letter on Wednesday to interim UW System President Tommy Thomson and UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank calling on university officials to order students living in residence halls back home.
Heinrich said there are nationwide recommendations to keep students on campus, though she said there is no “good answer.”
“Lots of people living in congregate living facilities will increase and potentially hasten the spread of illness amongt this population which may have an impact on the future in our community,” Heinrich said. “But returning them home has the risk of introducing illness into their own home communities, which is something to be considered as well.”
Parisi also called on the university to establish more on-campus quarantine facilities, triple the number of UW-Madison contact tracers within the next 30 days and increase testing capacity on the UW campus.
In an email Thursday, Mattes said Public Health agrees with the need to increase testing and contact tracing ability.
“The UW is trying to take swift action to contain the spread,” Mattes said. “We also believe the UW needs to increase testing capacity and bolster their number of contact tracers to address this spike in cases.”
Public Health encouraged those who live, work and visit downtown to take precautions, assume exposure and monitor for symptoms. Heinrich said Thursday that Public Health is currently not considering issuing an order specific to the downtown area.
“Given what’s happening right now, it’s just another moment to remind all of you that we need to do everything we can within our own control to take the precautions to protect your health and safety,” Heinrich said.
Calling the record case count “disturbing and concerning,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway echoed the advice to follow public health guidelines to prevent infection and reduce community spread. The priority is keeping people safe and healthy, the mayor said.
Rhodes-Conway said the effect of UW-Madison's coronavirus situation has a “potentially large” effect on the greater community, which is intertwined with campus life.
“Students are a very large population segment here in Madison as are UW faculty and staff,” she said. “The UW also obviously has a huge economic impact on Madison, and these are the things that we balance through the COVID-19 pandemic.”
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