University of Wisconsin-Madison officials are attempting to get a handle on the spread of the coronavirus amidst a recent spike of cases on campus.
On Tuesday, UW-Madison reported a total of 1,004 students and employees have tested positive for COVID-19. That new figure comes a day after Chancellor Becky Blank told all undergraduate students to "severely limit" their interactions and restrict their movement in hopes of containing the spread of the virus among the state's largest student body.
Most of the positive cases have been identified through on-campus testing, which ramped up over the past two weeks when students moved into residence halls, but also includes positives reported from public health officials as early as July 28.
The daily positive rate on Tuesday, which shows a percentage of positive tests compared to the overall number of tests given, showed 22.5 percent of tests conducted over the Labor Day weekend had come back as positive. UW-Madison noted, however, the data reflected a large proportion of positive tests among a small number of tests. For context, Tuesday's data included results for 93 tests. There were 1,899 tests reported on Sunday. The seven-day average of the positivity rate was 5.7 percent according to the university's COVID-19 dashboard.
In her message Monday, Blank thanked students who have followed public guidelines and the "Badger Pledge," which directs students to wear face masks, limit gatherings and maintain social distance of 6 feet with other individuals.
"But the testing statistics from the last few days have not been good and threaten our ability to continue a semester where campus is open to students," Blank wrote.
The chancellor pointed out that a growing number of positive cases at the university have been detected among those living in off-campus housing.
"Unfortunately, too many students have chosen to host or participate in social gatherings that seem to demonstrate a high disregard for the seriousness of this virus and the risk to our entire community," Blank said.
Nasia Safdar, UW Health's medical director for infection prevention, told WPR an increase of positive cases of COVID-19 was expected.
"But I think sometimes what we forget is that the spread of the virus is exponential," Safdar said. "So you can quickly go from, you know, as you double, you go from 10 to 100 in a matter of days and then from then on."
What's concerning, said Safdar, is that the current rise in cases could overwhelm UW-Madison's ability to provide isolation and quarantine rooms if it goes on unchecked.
Sign up for daily news!
Stay informed with WPR's email newsletter.
"And so I think this latest message from the chancellor should be taken as a very serious wake up call," said Safdar. "If these, you know, this curtailment of physical mobility doesn't work, then there are very few other options remaining."
The university hasn't provided information on whether any students or staff have been hospitalized as a result of infection. Safdar said college-age adults rarely are unless they have underlying health conditions. The concern, she said, is that if the community spread isn't contained, eventually COVID-19 will move into older populations who will need to seek care.
UW-Madison's spike in cases since students began moving in to residence halls has also impacted the overall number of COVID-19 cases in Dane County. On Tuesday, Public Health Madison & Dane County announced an increase of 901 new cases over the past week "with at least 71 percent being UW students or staff."
Matthew Mitnick is the chair of the Associated Students of Madison, the campus's student government body. ASM released a statement, Monday, saying the call for restrictions in gatherings and movement for two weeks isn't enough.
"When we saw this letter yesterday, we thought it was a step in the right direction in terms of limiting the in-person activities on campus," Mitnick told WPR. "But we thought that it did not go far enough in addressing the concerns many people have over in-person instruction, having the dorms at roughly 90 percent capacity. And in a way, we think it unfairly blamed students for a lot of the complications that have been arising."
Mitnick said ASM supports a "Moral Restart" instead, which essentially calls for nearly all classes to be online and continuing to pay student workers on campus who would have to find other jobs if campus does shut down. Mitnick said ASM has requested to meet with administration but hasn't heard back.
UW-Eau Claire Quarantines Residence Halls
On Labor Day, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire announced that 184 students living in six residence hall wings would be quarantined for two weeks after 69 students tested positive for COVID-19. Of the new positives, 52 lived in off-campus apartments while the other 17 lived in dorms.
UW-Eau Claire housing and residence life director Quincy Chapman told WPR the decision to issue quarantines in dormitories came through discussions with the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.
"As part of their CDC recommendations and implementation," said Chapman, "they indicated that when there is a positive case or as or a strong belief, typically a known positive case where someone used a communal bathroom in a setting, they would like the wing quarantined."
Those in quarantine will not be allowed to leave their dorm rooms but the university will deliver meals and books to their rooms. Chapman also said that all students under quarantine will be notified that they must also be tested for COVID-19.