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UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee pause employee vaccine mandates after federal injunction

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Vaccine clinic

Kris Voegeli, with Public Health Madison and Dane County, prepares COVID-19 vaccine during a drive-through vaccination clinic.

UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee joined dozens of colleges that are halting COVID-19 vaccine mandates after a federal judge last week blocked the Biden administration’s order requiring shots for federal contractors.

The universities this week updated their COVID-19 websites to note that the vaccine requirement for all employees is paused until further notice because of the court injunction.

Pfizer says a booster dose of its COVID-19 vaccine appears to offer important protection against the new omicron variant. Pfizer and its partner BioNTech tested how well vaccine-produced antibodies could neutralize omicron in lab dishes. They found significant weakening after the standard two doses. But a booster dose increased antibody levels by 25-fold.

The mandate was slated to take effect Jan. 18, meaning individuals receiving a two-shot series would have to receive their second dose by Jan 4. Employees could request a medical or religious exemption.

About 96% of UW-Madison employees are already vaccinated. About 1,600 employees still have yet to provide proof of vaccination, university spokesperson Meredith McGlone said Tuesday. That’s down from about 1,800 employees a month ago.

At UW-Milwaukee, about 1,200 employees haven’t provided vaccine documentation, university spokesperson John Schumacher said. In mid-November, that number was around 1,500.

Two other University of Wisconsin System schools, UW-Stevens Point and UW-Superior, also have federal contracts but neither has announced an employee vaccine mandate.

Judge R. Stan Baker, who was appointed to the bench by former President Donald Trump, issued the Dec. 7 injunction in response to a lawsuit brought by several contractors and conservative states.

Baker acknowledged the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine but said the court “must preserve the rule of law and ensure that all branches of government act within the bounds of their constitutionally granted authorities.”

The injunction came from the U.S. Southern District of Georgia but applies nationally. That’s because one of the parties challenging the order, Associated Builders and Contractors Inc., is a trade group whose members do business across the U.S.

Higher education reporter Kelly Meyerhofer shares her favorite stories of 2021

After a bruising year brimming with horrific headlines, the first story I wrote in 2021 was filled with optimism for the year ahead: UW-Madison received its first COVID-19 vaccines.

The pandemic continued to be a throughline for me (and most every reporter on the planet) this year. I chronicled COVID-19's toll on students' mental health, wrote about the anxiety faculty had in returning to face-to-face classes amid the surging delta variant and reported on the varying vaccination strategies across schools. 

One of my favorite stories was following a set of quadruplets through their first semester of college. Each of them attended a different institution yet they all started school from their childhood home.

In another feature story, I wrote about a UW-Madison nursing student overcoming almost insurmountable odds to earn her bachelor's degree this spring.

One of my more simple story ideas was talking to six Madisonians — a nurse, firefighter, professor, pastor, funeral director and public health employee — on the one-year anniversary of the pandemic about how COVID-19 had disrupted their lives. I'm grateful to each of them for sharing their personal stories with readers.

A more complex story involved reviewing thousands of pages of emails and records to reconstruct the first two weeks of September 2020 at UW-Madison, a time when COVID-19 cases exploded and employees scrambled to respond. 

More than one hundred of my 170-some stories so far this year touched on COVID-19 in some way or another. Here's hoping for fewer virus-related stories in 2022! And thanks to State Journal subscribers for supporting my work as one of Wisconsin's few higher education reporters.

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A third of UW-Madison’s COVID-19 cases for the entire school year came in the four weeks after students started moving into the dorms.

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The torrent of disruption to daily life over the past year has been inescapable.

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The nursing student learned about end-of-life care in lectures. She had to put that knowledge to the test last year. 

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Engineering professor Akbar Sayeed left behind a "career-long string of victims," according to a recently released report. 

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COVID-19 complicated the transition for all freshmen last year, but especially for students who started their college careers from home. For one family, those complications were multiplied by four.


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