Wisconsin universities are reporting multiple positive cases of COVID-19 among students and staff as many campuses within the University of Wisconsin System prepare to start classes next week.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has released a COVID-19 dashboard showing that 36 people on campus have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. On Tuesday, nine students tested positive, which has sent the campus's seven-day average of positive tests climbing.
Of the 36 positives at the state's flagship campus, 33 came from students, with the rest coming from employees. So far, the total positivity rate for UW-Madison is 1.2 percent.
A campus spokeswoman said that on top of the positives detected using on-campus testing 87 additional students and eight additional employees have been reported through off campus testing. That brings the total number of positives for the campus to 131 so far.
Collin Pitts, the chief resident of the campus Preventative Medicine Residency program working with University Health Services, said seeing positive cases isn't a surprise and the current data is similar to the rate of community spread in Madison and Dane County.
"We're really expecting a fair number of cases over the next couple of days as we expand our testing to include all the students that are living in the residence halls," Pitts said.
Pitts said UW-Madison is testing all students planning to live in residence halls on arrival to campus. He said this stands in contrast to what other campuses like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which moved classes online less than a week after opening.
UW-Madison will also conduct voluntary testing of groups of students living off campus. And COVID-19 screening is available to any student or employee that requests it. Anyone who shows symptoms of COVID-19 will also be tested along with anyone that had recent contact with those testing positive.
Pitts said the plan is to test 8,000 students in the first week of mass screening and the expectation is that the positivity rate will continue to match that of the surrounding community. If 1.2 percent of those 8,000 students test positive there could be nearly 100 new cases reported.
The university is using what is known as a PCR test, which detects genetic material in the virus. But Pitts said the test is so new and approved through a U.S. Food and Drug Administration emergency authorization the university doesn't know how accurate it is.
"We don't actually have the sensitivity for it, because the current FDA emergency use authorization doesn't require it," said Pitts. "They require a lot of detection and validation process."
That said, UW-Madison's PCR test is very similar to others that have proven highly effective at detecting the virus, said Pitts. PCR tests, in general have been described as the "gold standard" for accurate COVID-19 diagnosis.
According to a New York Times analysis
of COVID-19 outbreaks at the nation's colleges, 50 positive cases have been reported at UW-Milwaukee between March and August. The university hasn't posted a dashboard with the number of students or employees testing positive. A campus spokesman said the newspaper obtained the data through an open records request.
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UW-Whitewater reported three new cases between Aug.17 and Aug. 29. Two of those positive results came from employees, the other being a student. Since March, the campus has reported 11 positive cases of COVID-19. UW-Whitewater's COVID-19 dashboard doesn't include key metrics like total test numbers or positivity rate. A campus spokesman told WPR in an email he was working to get the additional testing information.
UW-Parkside has reported one positive case of COVID-19 this month. But again, the campus reporting dashboard doesn't include information on how many tests had been administered. An email requesting that information was not returned by a campus spokesman.
Marquette University, the state's largest private college, has reported a total of 108 positive cases of COVID-19 since testing began in March. Of the total, 89 positives have come from the student population and 19 have come from employees.
In the past month, universities and colleges have made their final preparations to welcome hundreds of thousands of students back to campuses across Wisconsin. These plans have included face mask requirements, temperature monitoring, and even required pledges in which students promise to follow rules meant to prevent outbreaks on campus.
In a blog post, Wednesday, UW-Madison chancellor Becky Blank defended the university's decision to push forward with bringing tens of thousands of students and employees back to campus while other universities around the U.S. close because of outbreaks. She said a "substantial percentage" of students will continue to live in Madison whether classes are online or not.
"Given this, we believe that both they and the community are better off when they have some structure to their days (beyond sitting at home in front of a computer), when testing is broadly available, and when they receive daily reminders of health protocols," Blanks said.
But local elected officials aren't so sure reopening campus amid the pandemic will leave students or the community better off. A letter signed by 28 Dane County Supervisors, Madison City Council Members and Madison Metropolitan School District board members opposed the university's "Smart Restart" plan and requested that nearly all classes be moved online, dorms only be used for students who don't have safe alternative housing and that specific metrics on what would cause the campus to cancel in-person instruction be shared with the public.
"Why bring everyone back to campus until the inevitable outbreak, which will require a vast amount of public health resources to address, and the potential spreading of the virus to multiple communities?" said the letter.