Expansion of COVID-19 testing at campuses like UW-Madison and a related drop in cases is a model for how to reduce spread of the coronavirus, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday during a visit to the university.
CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield joined interim UW System President Tommy Thompson in touring UW-Madison’s Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Lab, which processes about 6,000 samples a week for the campus community and plans to double its capacity by January.
Weekly testing of students who live in dorms and of certain employees has helped the campus curb an outbreak in September, when hundreds of cases were reported and about 10% of students tested positive, officials say. This month, the daily average has been about 1%.
It appears that positive tests among students, many without symptoms, persuaded them to wear masks, avoid crowds, maintain distance from others and wash their hands, Redfield said.
“The universities, they seem to have figured out ... how to use testing to reinforce behavior change,” said Redfield, whose son was a transplant surgeon and researcher at UW-Madison before leaving recently for the University of Pennsylvania. “We’re hoping more and more veterinary schools will step up ... and help provide expanded testing capability.”
The Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, also on campus, has been busy processing COVID-19 tests from people around the state. It is sharing a federal license with the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab to enable the vet lab to process most samples for the campus, said Pete Schult, the state lab’s associate director.
Keith Poulsen, vet lab director, said the lab should be able to process 12,000 to 14,000 samples a week by January, when more expansive testing announced by the university Wednesday is expected to begin.
Redfield urged residents of Wisconsin — a national COVID-19 hot spot this month, seeing its most cases and deaths of the pandemic — to be vigilant about wearing masks, especially if gathering with family during upcoming holidays.
“The public square is pretty aware if you’re not wearing a mask,” he said. “Don’t let your guard down in your family gatherings, and we’re going to have a lot of them.”
One or two COVID-19 vaccines are likely to be available by December or January for limited distribution to high-risk groups and front-line workers, Redfield and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said during a public appearance Wednesday.
The general public should be able to get vaccinated by March or April, Azar said while addressing the media at the CDC in Atlanta.
“There is hope on the way in the form of safe and effective vaccines in a matter of weeks or months,” Azar said.
With six vaccines in advanced development, it’s possible several may be available next year, with varying rates of effectiveness, Redfield said.
“We’re going to be very clear about what we see scientifically as the pros and cons for the different populations,” he said.