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UW System And Federal Government Competing For COVID-19 Test Supplies

UW President Tommy Thompson Says Order For Testing Machines Was Nearly Taken By Feds For Use In Nursing Homes

A man in a face mask, face shield, gown, and gloves handles a COVID-19 test at an outdoor testing facility under a tent
A COVID-19 test technician handles a test Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, at a pedestrian-friendly testing location at UW-Madison. Angela Major/WPR

University of Wisconsin System President Tommy Thompson says he had to lobby a COVID-19 test manufacturer to keep testing supplies destined for campuses from being taken by the federal government. Thompson is also asking bars and restaurants in Wisconsin to “keep the crowds down” so that universities won’t have to close due to outbreaks.

During Thursday’s UW Board of Regents meeting Thompson said the UW System had placed an order with testmaker Quidel for 36 machines capable of producing COVID-19 test results within 15 minutes. The machines process what are known as antigen tests, which detect proteins contained within the virus that causes COVID-19. But Thompson said he was told the federal government, which is in the process of acquiring testing supplies for the nation’s nursing homes, attempted to take the machines destined for the UW System.

So now the President of the United States gets the ball with the federal government, and they want to buy 10 million of these machines and little Wisconsin got into a fight with the federal government over our 36 machines,” he said.

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Thompson said that he and UW System Legal Counsel Quinn Williams lobbied Quidel CEO Kevin Dell to keep the UW System’s order of 36 testing machines intact.

And we have now convinced them that we deserve better than the nursing homes,” said Thompson.

The first 18 Quidel machines arrived this week, said Thompson, and he expects the others to hit Wisconsin just days before classes start at most of the state’s campuses Sept. 2.

The antigen tests are one part of the UW System’s testing strategy. They will be used to provide bi-monthly screening of all residents in university residence halls. Antigen tests produce results faster than another testing method known as PCR, which detects virus DNA, but their accuracy diminishes unless the test is administered within five days of a person becoming symptomatic.

A UW System spokesman told WPR in an email that the first 3,300 Quidel antigen tests have also shipped. Last fall, there were 40,517 students in UW dormitories.

“But we are supposed to get 20,000 tests a week until we reach our 315,000,” Thompson told Regents. “The chairman and CEO (of Quidel) and I have developed a great friendship. But he says he cannot promise, but he said, ‘We will do everything we possibly can.’”

Thompson also talked about recent outbreaks at universities like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Notre Dame. Both of those campuses have moved classes online due to COVID-19, though Notre Dame said its closure was temporary and meant to stop the outbreak from spreading.

Students and faculty have raised concerns about the UW System’s plan to push ahead with a mix of in-person and online classes this fall amid the pandemic. In particular, there is concern that despite careful planning by administrators, universities cannot control what happens when students and employees leave campus.

Thompson told Regents Thursday that he’s considered and is urging chancellors to talk with local bar and restaurant owners.

“I am sending out a letter with the Tavern League and the Restaurant Association, so all taverns and restaurants, telling them to be careful, to keep the crowds down so that we can stay open the full semester,” Thompson said. “And they’ve all been very agreeable to do that.”

In April, the Tavern League filed an amicus brief with the Wisconsin Supreme Court during a court battle challenging Gov. Tony Evers’ “Safer at Home” executive order that barred taverns and restaurants from serving patrons, aside from to-go food orders. The Tavern League urged the court to direct DHS to issue it’s order using the emergency rule process rather than through executive order. Instead, the court struck down the majority of the “Safer at Home” order.

After Thompson’s report on COVID-19 testing and campus reopening plans, Regents moved to other business including the UW System’s biennial budget request. The board approved the request, which will now be sent to the state Department of Administration for consideration by Evers.

The budget request seeks an increase of nearly $96 million in state funding for initiatives including a “tuition promise” program that would offer four years of free college for students from families making less than $60,000 a year. The $96 million in additional state funding still wouldn’t match the $110 million in cuts between 2020 and 2023 ordered for the UW System by Evers due to projected declines in state revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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