Aside from big spike in Madison, UW schools face their own outbreaks, inconsistent data

Testing
Madison's community test site. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

Two weeks into the semester at the 13 UW System schools, the plans for safely welcoming students back to campus seem to be falling apart as infections spread.  

Before classes started, UW System President Tommy Thompson touted testing plans as the reason UW would succeed in bringing students back where other universities across the country had failed.  

“I think our regiment, our plan, is as good or better than any university I’ve seen,” Thompson said in August.

But as of Wednesday night, UW-Madison had tested more than 18,000 students — with more than 1,000 testing positive. Wednesday’s positive test rate from the on-campus testing center was 20%, according to a university dashboard

Earlier on Wednesday, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi had requested that school administrators send underclassmen home, leading UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank to mandate that all classes go online and two first-year dorms were put under quarantine for two weeks.

In a statement, Thompson supported the decision to move online. 

“I support the additional mitigation steps announced by Chancellor Blank today,” he said. “These steps are not unlike those employed by other universities around the country. Students will remain on campus, as recommended by health experts, and UW-Madison will take a two-week period to deliver all courses online, halting in-class delivery out of an abundance of caution.”

Elsewhere in Southern Wisconsin, other schools were having problems of their own. 

On Wednesday, UW-Platteville conducted 98 tests with 24 coming back positive, a 24.5% positive test rate, according to a UW System report. That was the highest positive rate of all UW schools. 

In total, the school has only 56 positive cases, but it has also only conducted 284 tests, according to a university dashboard. That means the school has tested 3% of its more than 8,000 students.

“UW-Platteville’s rate of positive tests reflects the cooperation between the university and Grant County Health Services, who does the contract tracing,” spokesperson Paul Erickson said. “Our county partners are helping to identify the students most at risk of contracting COVID-19.  Those students in turn, are contacting our Student Health Services to be tested. Those students who may be exhibiting symptoms or may have been exposed to someone symptomatic are the ones we have tested first when we began this semester. So in other words, we are first focusing on the students who may be at-risk. For the first two weeks, our cumulative percentage of positive tests is 16.9 percent. Our initial plans are working. We have now begun more widespread testing, which will include students who may not be symptomatic.”

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In Whitewater, UW-Whitewater Chancellor Greg Cook pleaded with the city council to pass an ordinance preventing indoor gatherings of more than ten people and outdoor gatherings of more  than 25. 

The resolution failed despite Cook asking for “teeth” to prevent students from holding off-campus gatherings as he told them about Wednesday’s news from Madison. 

“To be honest with you, we’re not far behind,” Cook said. “And it’s going to have an impact on the city. This is a last-ditch effort, really, for us — to ask for any tool we can implement to try to squash this increase in the viral spread,” he continued. “Like Mr. [Council President Lynn] Binnie, I actually fear it’s probably too late. We should have done this over a month ago.”

On Wednesday, UW-Whitewater had a 14.5% positive test rate. This week, 69 students have tested positive, more than the 51 who tested positive during the first week of classes. Already, 91 of the university’s 113 available on-campus quarantine rooms have been filled. 

Elsewhere across the state that much information isn’t even available. 

UW-Milwaukee has reported 46 positive cases among students, yet isn’t reporting the number of tests it is conducting. The UW System report shows that on Wednesday the school conducted 53 tests and found four positives. At that rate it will take more than a year for the school to test its more than 27,000 students. 

Meanwhile, community members still don’t have an easy way to see what is happening with infection rates on the Milwaukee campus, as the school tinkers with its online COVID dashboard.

“The dashboard was created to give our students and community a broad, easy-to-understand overview of the current situation as it relates to COVID-19,” UW-M spokesperson Michelle Johnson said in a statement. “With the UW System dashboard going online this week, we are now revising our dashboard to be in line with that. We hope to have the redesigned page up shortly.”

UW-Parkside and UW-Stevens Point aren’t locally reporting the number of tests conducted either. Stevens Point spokesperson Nick Schultz said the school’s dashboard will include the number of tests in the future and a Parkside spokesperson pointed to the testing numbers collected by UW System. 

“UW System is reporting on tests being conducted under the System’s testing program,” UW System Spokesperson Mark Pitsch said. “Universities may be providing additional data on their own dashboards based on their unique circumstances on their campuses and in their communities.”

UW-Superior isn’t reporting any local numbers, though the UW System report shows one positive case among the school’s 120 tests conducted on Tuesday. UW-La Crosse had just put its dashboard online Thursday morning, and after two days of classes had conducted 350 tests, with 33 positive results. 

There are some bright spots so far at some of the smaller campuses. 

UW-Green Bay, which has more than 6,000 students, has already conducted more than 1,000 tests and reported four positive cases — a positive test rate of less than 1%.

UW-Oshkosh has also conducted 1,356 tests and only found 18 positive cases among its 13,000 students. The school’s seven-day average positive rate is 1.3%. 

Spokespeople for UW-Whitewater and UW-Superior did not respond to requests for comment. 

In August, when Thompson was saying the UW System testing plan would allow schools to stay open, he refused to answer what he would do if schools saw big spikes of infections. 

“I’m not going to tell you what my plans are as far as incidents, but rest assured I’m looking at the data,” he said. “They’re in my head.”