The coronavirus pandemic never ended. After the nightmarish neglect of former President Donald Trump and his allies turned a crisis into a catastrophe, things stabilized with the transfer of power to President Joe Biden. Vaccination rates soared, and summer began on a hopeful note in Wisconsin and across the country.
But the fight to get the pandemic under control has been severely undermined by Republicans such as U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, who have spread misinformation about the vaccines and encouraged denial and hesitancy on the part of people who most needed the shots. Instead of reaching the vaccination rates that the experts say are needed to protect people — at least 70%, ideally 80% or higher — less than 52% of Wisconsinites are vaccinated.
At the same time, the delta variant has introduced a more contagious and virulent form of the virus to Wisconsin and other states. We’re seeing instances of so-called “breakthrough cases” even in highly vaccinated regions such as Dane County. There’s no question that the vaccines work — among those who have gotten their shots, only about .003% COVID cases lead to hospitalizations, and only about .001% lead to deaths. But for the unvaccinated and for the medically vulnerable, this is a frustrating, and frightening, moment.
Madison, in particular, finds itself in a perilous position. Restaurants and stores are open, and students are supposed to begin returning to public schools and the University of Wisconsin campus in the next several weeks. In fact, the moving vans have already begun blocking traffic in the downtown neighborhoods surrounding the campus.
If the infection rates continue to rise, necessary steps will have to be taken in order to assure that the campus and the surrounding community are protected. How far officials will need to go to prevent the spread of the deadly virus, and to keep schools and businesses open — if that is possible — remains to be seen. But new mask mandates and social-distancing orders are likely to be on the table. So, too, could vaccination requirements.
What’s going to be required is a willingness to take the science seriously, a recognition that there may be a need to move quickly, and the flexibility that’s required to try approaches that are most likely to save lives.
Unfortunately, the same politicians who dragged their feet last year, making a bad situation dramatically worse, are now talking about erecting roadblocks to administrators on the UW-Madison campus and on other UW campuses statewide.
State Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, announced last week that he plans to propose legislation that would require the UW System to get the approval of Republican legislators before implementing new mandates and regulations for preventing the spread of the virus. Specifically, Nass wants the Legislature’s Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules, which he co-chairs, to have the authority to suspend any individual provisions within emergency campus rules or to reject the rules in their entirety.
Referencing Andrea Palm, who last year led Wisconsin’s efforts to combat the pandemic (as Gov. Tony Evers’s designee to serve as secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services) and who now serves as U.S. deputy secretary of Health and Human Services in the Biden administration, Nass griped that: "Unfortunately, some chancellors in the UW System consider themselves mini-Andrea Palms, not beholden to following state law and moving quickly to take advantage of the delta-variant hysteria to enact excessive COVID-19 mandates. The Legislature should not drag its feet in utilizing the powers we have to prevent state agencies from abusing the statutory and constitutional rights of citizens as was done in 2020.”
Not for the first time, Nass is getting pretty much everything wrong.
Private universities such as Marquette and Lawrence have created vaccine mandates for students; UW campuses have not. They have no history of making unreasonable demands on students or visitors. In fact, they have been criticized — by student organizations and by local elected officials — for not being strict enough.
There is no “delta-variant hysteria.” The delta variant is real, and it is beginning to raise serious concerns. So far, responses to those concerns have been measured. If anyone is being hysterical, it is Nass, who is seeking to foreclose options at precisely the point when common sense says we need to keep all reasonable options open.
That’s why former Gov. Tommy Thompson, a conservative Republican who has served ably as interim president of the UW system, was so blunt in his response to the prospect that Republican lawmakers such as Nass might tie the hands of UW officials who are seeking to prevent COVID-19 transmission on campuses.
"Given my experience as a former United States Health and Human Services secretary, I know the biggest threat to in-person classes this fall would be actions that strip the UW System of the tools it has so successfully used to date to address outbreaks and reduce the spread of COVID-19," Thompson said last week. "Just as we have this past year, the UW System will continue to use its authority to take nimble and reasonable steps that enable us to keep our campuses open for the education students need, parents expect, and Wisconsin deserves."
Legislators of both parties should trust the flexible, science-based approach Thompson proposes, as opposed to the anti-scientific hysteria of Nass.
If a crisis develops, Nass’ approach will not merely make things far worse. It will lead to more infections than would occur if proper precautions were taken. And, yes, more deaths.
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