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With COVID-19 cases rising at UW-Madison, officials issue warning to students
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COVID-19 | UW-MADISON

With COVID-19 cases rising at UW-Madison, officials issue warning to students

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UW Covid Saliva

Workers at one of UW-Madison's COVID-19 test sites receive samples earlier this semester. 

The first month of UW-Madison’s semester last fall saw nearly 1,900 on-campus student COVID-19 cases, two dorm quarantines, at least one hospitalization and a public rebuke by Dane County’s top leader.

The spring semester was shaping up to be entirely different — that is, until this week when the university reported 278 positive student cases over the past three days. Those results alone represent a third of the student cases reported since the semester started in late January.

The concerning uptick in COVID-19 cases among students living on and off campus led University Health Services director Jake Baggott to send an email Friday urging students to comply with public health precautions in order to avoid the restrictions UW-Madison imposed last fall amid dozens of campus outbreaks.

UW-Madison’s contact tracing has found many of the students who recently tested positive attended gatherings, sometimes without wearing masks. Officials have responded by increasing testing in some dorms to every other day instead of twice per week.

If cases continue to rise, restrictions may include dorm quarantines, stay-at-home orders or increased testing for students living off campus.

Baggott’s message to students and staff came a day after Dane County confirmed a more contagious variant of the virus was detected in a person with no recent travel history outside of the county. Also this week, The Daily Cardinal reported that UW-Madison has found “a small number” of COVID-19 reinfections among members of the campus community.

Despite the recent rise in COVID-19 cases, UW-Madison’s seven-day average positivity rate remains low at 1% thanks to a new saliva-based testing program that dramatically increased capacity. The university administered about 150,000 tests last year — roughly the same number it has conducted in the first four weeks of this semester.

Much of UW-Madison’s focus has been on working through kinks in the new testing program, which has drawn complaints about long lines and rejected tests.

The university switched from appointment-based testing to a drop-in style. UW-Madison adjusted staff schedules to better accommodate peak testing times, though some people on campus say getting tested on the weekend is still difficult. While 14 testing sites are open on weekdays, there are five open on Saturdays and four on Sundays.

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Another adjustment involved delaying building access restrictions. Students and employees this semester are using a mobile phone app to receive test results and access their Badger Badge, which allows them to enter campus buildings when they are in compliance with testing requirements. Enforcement of building access was pushed back several weeks as the campus community adjusted to the new testing program, which Chancellor Rebecca Blank at a meeting earlier this week said was the right call. Since enforcement took effect Feb. 10, she said there’s been few, if any, problems.

Lori Reesor, the vice chancellor for student affairs, said at the same meeting that the new testing program was going well, so well that the university cut back on its COVID-19 call center availability because there were fewer questions coming in for staff to answer.

Still, some students remain frustrated with the new style of testing, the increased requirements and the potential disciplinary action for skipping tests. A handful of students have reported receiving false positive test results.

Senior Kristina Smeshko said she tested positive at Union South earlier this month. Experiencing no symptoms and wanting peace of mind, she got tested at Alliant Energy Center four days after receiving her positive test result from UW-Madison. The test was negative.

Smeshko returned to Alliant the next day and two days after that. Both results came back negative.

With three negative test results in hand, she determined her result from the university must have been wrong.

But she worried about being able to get tested for COVID-19 later this semester. UW-Madison policy exempts individuals who test positive from its twice-weekly testing for 90 days.

Smeshko twice called University Health Services for guidance on the matter but said the staff had no answers to offer.

UW-Madison spokesperson John Lucas said the chances of a false positive result are “extremely low” because the university uses PCR tests, which are considered to be the gold standard in diagnostic testing.

Students infected with COVID-19 can choose to resume testing after their 10-day isolation period has passed but before the 90-day exemption period expires, he said. Getting tested off campus won’t “overturn” a positive result on campus and he discouraged students from doing so.

“We’re urging campus to trust the results they receive,” he said. “Seeking an additional test puts others at risk.”


Despite the recent rise in COVID-19 cases, UW-Madison’s seven-day average positivity rate remains low at 1% thanks to a new saliva-based testing program that dramatically increased capacity. The university administered about 150,000 tests last year — roughly the same number it has conducted in the first four weeks of this semester.

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