UW-Madison is moving all classes online and quarantining students in two of its largest dorms for at least the next two weeks, the most significant step by the university to curb a COVID-19 outbreak that has surpassed 1,000 infections in mere days.
The announcement on Wednesday came as little surprise to the campus community, many of whom expected the university to pivot to all-online in the face of uncontrolled virus spread and criticized administrators for their “Smart Restart” reopening plan throughout the summer.
The order came on the fifth day of classes, on the heels of a long holiday weekend and after each of the last two days saw a positivity rate of 20% or greater among students. The city-county public health department said there are at least 46 separate outbreaks currently tied to UW-Madison.
“I share the disappointment and frustration of students and employees who had hoped we might enjoy these first few weeks of the academic year together,” Chancellor Rebecca Blank said. “Before we started this semester, we knew that no plan would be risk-free in the current environment.”
Emerson Boettcher, a senior studying political science and economics, said the news was predictable but nevertheless disappointing.
“I would give up every single night out in college to be in person this year,” she said. “But that’s not what every student would do and there’s no way for the university to suss out who is here for school and who is here to party.”
The announcement stops short of sending home students who live in the dorms, an action Dane County Executive Joe Parisi urged UW-Madison on Wednesday to take.
UW-Madison said it doesn’t believe such a step is warranted at this time and University of Wisconsin System spokesman Mark Pitsch said sending students back home is “not a wise solution,” considering the quarantine space and other support available on campus.
Public health experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, have said sending students home is “one of the worst things” to do when a campus faces COVID-19 outbreaks.
Quarantine, other restrictions
While university testing data show more than double the number of cases came from students who live off-campus compared to those in dorms over the past week, Blank said the latest numbers also show a sharp increase in cases at two residence halls.
That’s why she ordered the 2,230 residents living in Sellery Hall and Witte Hall to quarantine for 14 days, starting at 10 p.m. Wednesday.
Freshman Nick Larsen, who moved into Witte Hall on Aug. 31, said the news left him “kind of shattered” but with some hope still.
“It’s heartbreaking entering into a life that you’ve been looking forward to for years then having your first semester, and hopefully only semester, torn away from you,” he said. “I don’t feel great about it now, but I’m trying to stay hopeful.”
He said when the university announced the quarantine to students earlier in the evening Wednesday, there was mention of scheduled food deliveries three times a day to students free of charge and rules prohibiting any congregating or “mingling with other students.”
As students from the quarantined residence halls stormed nearby stores to stock up on supplies before the Wednesday night deadline, Larsen said he and a few others had the initial reaction to “go play catch one more time” since even going for a walk outside won’t be an option for two weeks now.
“We shared a pretty cool moment just playing catch in the rain while everyone was freaking out around us,” he said.
While the goal is to bring case numbers down with this quarantine, pausing face-to-face courses would likely not make much of a dent. Blank acknowledged that contact-tracing hasn’t revealed evidence of transmission in the classroom. Still, out of an abundance of caution, she ordered an end to in-person classes through at least Sept. 25.
Other restrictions include only carry-out options at dining halls, suspension of in-person study spaces and closure of gyms. These come on top of UW-Madison ordering more than 400 fraternity and sorority members to quarantine and restricting all undergraduates to only essential activities.
Interim System President Tommy Thompson, who consulted on the plan, said pausing in-person instruction is the right approach to take for UW-Madison. Other UW campuses will continue to operate under their own reopening plans.
“These tactics have proven effective at other universities,” he said in a statement. “Our hospitals have not experienced significant surge or strain. Our substantial testing has generated positive tests. This is not a surprise. Chancellor Blank and the Smart Restart team continue to take immediate steps, informed by data, to contain the spread.”
‘Deep concern’ from county
Parisi sent a letter to Blank and Thompson on Wednesday expressing concern about the university’s spike in COVID-19 cases and its strain on public health resources.
Parisi’s letter exemplifies the growing tension in relations between universities and their communities as campuses reopen this fall amid objections from many residents.
Colleges across the country, including at UW-Madison, heard concerns from elected local leaders over the summer about the detrimental effect their decision to reopen could have on the health of the community at large. That concern also was communicated to UW officials by Public Health Madison and Dane County director Janel Heinrich.
While UW System and UW-Madison officials said their reopening plans were based on public health guidance, city-county health department spokeswoman Sarah Mattes said Wednesday that the director “has had numerous conversations with UW officials expressing concern about the return of students.”
Public Health Madison and Dane County reported that at least 74% of the county’s new cases since Sept. 1 came from UW-Madison. While the county’s daily number of new cases reported on Wednesday, 16, was low because of the way in which results are reported, the weekly average is running at least three times as high as in late August, according to Mattes.
“If you live or work in the (Downtown) area, you should assume you were exposed to COVID-19 and monitor yourself for symptoms,” the agency said on Wednesday.
The city-county health department initiates a facility investigation and/or intervention when even just a single case emerges at a fraternity, sorority, dorm, school, long-term care facility or daycare, Mattes said. Because this level of action is taken, one case in any of those settings is considered a cluster. Apartment buildings are considered clusters if there are 10 or more cases.
Blank said she, too, shared the same concern Parisi has about the health and well-being of students and county residents.
“That is the primary reason we have instituted a robust testing regime — to ensure we knew about and could take action related to the spread of COVID-19,” she said. “It’s the university’s goal to be a partner with the city and county and not unduly strain limited resources.”
But Parisi, in his letter, cited concerns with the university’s testing operations, such as students reporting difficulty securing an appointment because University Health Services is “booked up.” He requested UW-Madison immediately increase its on-campus testing capacity.
A record number of people showed up for testing at the Alliant Energy Center on Tuesday, and the city-county public health agency projects more than 30% of individuals were UW students, county spokeswoman Ariana Vruwink said.
If that pattern of testing demand continues, Parisi estimated the cost of daily test kits will top $300,000 daily.
Blank disputed reports of students unable to make testing appointments. She said UW-Madison has a “significant testing capacity” on campus with appointments available every day for members of the campus community. A university spokesperson declined to say whether UW-Madison ends each day with appointments going unfilled, an indication that there are enough spots to meet demand.
Parisi suggested UW-Madison establish more quarantine facilities for students who live off-campus. Currently, UW-Madison does not provide accommodations for students living off-campus who become infected or were in close contact with someone who was.
He also wants UW-Madison to triple the number of contact tracers it has on staff within the next 30 days. The university currently has 42 contact tracers. Dane County will soon have over 100 of its own, but he said “the recent surge of positive cases already far overwhelmed capacity the UW had put in place to follow up on cases.”
State Journal reporter Shanzeh Ahmad contributed to this report.
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