In lieu of a vaccine mandate at the University of Wisconsin System's 26 campuses, interim President Tommy Thompson is barnstorming his way through the state, rallying students to get the shots.
When Thompson was spotted walking toward the UW-Eau Claire campus mall Monday with Chancellor Jim Schmidt, more than 100 members of the campus marching band struck up thunderous renditions of classic rock, R&B and modern pop songs.
Speaking with reporters, Thompson said 88 percent of employees at the campus have completed the vaccine series, as have nearly 70 percent of UW-Eau Claire students.
"I think that is outstanding, but that is not good enough," said Thompson. "We want to get to 80 percent of our students vaccinated."
Thompson said it is unclear if President Joe Biden's executive order mandating COVID-19 vaccines for federal agencies or contractors doing business with the federal government might apply to employees at UW System campuses. But if the state's universities are subject to the order, "we'll go along with it," he said.
"I want everybody to recognize we're shooting towards 100 percent (vaccinated)," said Thompson. "But we're doing it on a voluntary basis."
After taking questions, Thompson hoisted the mallet above his head and brought it down on a carnival-style, strongman game that sent a metal cylinder into a bell marked with the words "Vax Up!" Thompson then encouraged Schmidt and even a couple shy students to try their luck.
Amid the music and sporadic ringing bell, UW-Eau Claire volunteers were stationed at tables, encouraging students to upload their vaccine records or sign up for a vaccine clinic on campus. It's all part of a months-long effort by Thompson and chancellors to encourage, but not require, COVID-19 vaccinations.
Major universities in Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan have mandated vaccines for students and employees. Thompson has said he prefers the voluntary approach. Some private universities in Wisconsin, including Marquette University, have mandated vaccines.
Media representatives with UW-Eau Claire said they expect the student body to reach a 70 percent vaccination rate by the end of Monday. A campus volunteer said the school was less than 200 students away from the goal.
UW-La Crosse was the state's first comprehensive university to announce a 70 percent student vaccination rate. UW-Madison announced Sept. 2 that 90 percent of its entire campus population had been fully vaccinated.
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UW-Eau Claire sophomore Calvin Marxen said he's been vaccinated against COVID-19 and was unaware that the vaccination rally was happening on campus.
"I just finished my 10 a.m. (class) and came outside and heard some commotion and saw that Chancellor Jim was up there smashing COVID, and I am all the way for it," said Marxen. "I'm loving the smash COVID thing and there's nothing not to like about it, really."
Marxen said he's unsure about whether vaccines should be mandated. But he said he's glad to be back to in-person classes on campus after spending most of his last school year in his dorm room taking classes online.
UW-Eau Claire freshman Lauren Jones said she's also been vaccinated and is OK without a vaccine mandate at the university. She said that's because of how her fellow students have stepped up to get the shots.
"I heard that our rates were pretty low as of maybe a month ago," said Jones. "So, I'm really impressed with where we are now, and I can't wait to see how far we go from here."
Thompson's visit to Eau Claire marked the fifth vaccination rally since August. Other events have been held at UW-La Crosse, UW-Stevens Point, UW-Oshkosh and UW-Milwaukee.