Parisi, Blank go back and forth on UW’s role in spreading COVID-19

University of Wisconsin symbol on building
University of Wisconsin Madison by sk CC BY-ND 2.0

Following a continued spike in Dane County COVID-19 cases, County Executive Joe Parisi on Sunday renewed his calls for UW-Madison to close dorms and move to entirely virtual classes for the remainder of the fall semester. 

But on Monday, UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank said that the school’s efforts to contain the spread have started to take hold, and the most obvious vectors of spread amongst students — off-campus parties and bars — can only be brought under control with the help of local officials. 

We have run more than 36,000 tests since August and are testing our campus population at a far higher proportion than the Dane County community at large,” Blank said in a statement. “We also plan to take all appropriate steps to ensure that Badger football does not create a negative impact. In short, we are working hard to control the areas under our jurisdiction and are cautiously optimistic that we’re making progress.”

“We know these gatherings can lead to the spread of COVID-19 but UW-Madison does not have jurisdiction to shut down gatherings in off campus areas,” she continued. “Until those agencies with enforcement authority take additional action, we shouldn’t expect to see a rapid decline in cases in Dane County. We call on the County Executive’s Office to step forward and become a partner in promoting and enforcing safe behavior in off-campus spaces.” 

Dane County confirmed 91 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, according to a county dashboard. Sunday’s results continued a downward trend in the county’s seven-day average of positive test results after a record spike in cases shortly after the semester started — though the number is only now returning to the levels of Dane County’s previous record spike in June. 

UW-Madison’s numbers match the curve of Dane County’s with numbers starting to come down after the spike at the beginning of the semester. 

But, with the Big Ten Conference’s announcement that football will be returning in October, the cooling weather and coming flu season, there is reason for concern over the control of COVID-19 on campus and in the community. 

“We’ve already seen a record number of cases from the UW campus just from students moving in,” Parisi said in a Sept. 16 statement. “While we all love our football Saturdays, the festivities that come with them are going to serve as new spreading events within our community. We have a lot of sick UW students right now — 88% of those who have tested positive are reporting symptoms — and this is before the weather gets colder and flu season arrives.”

Even if UW-Madison followed Parisi’s request to close residence halls and move to online courses, it’s not clear how much that would help the community’s standing. Most of the university’s upperclassmen and graduate students live in off-campus housing and would likely stay in Madison because they’ve signed leases, have jobs and prefer to live with their friends rather than go back home

“As we’ve said repeatedly, the university could close its residence halls and move to all online instruction and there will still be tens of thousands of students who would opt to honor their apartment leases and stay in Madison, as they did this past spring,” Blank said. “It’s wishful thinking to suggest otherwise. It’s long past time to stop arguing. We’d welcome a conversation on how we can work together to help our community.” 

In response to Blank saying that now UW and Dane County need to come together to control the spread, county spokesperson Ariana Vruwink said that the concerns of public officials were expressed to university administrators in the summer. Now, Vruwink said, Wisconsin has one of the highest rates of infection in the country, with public health experts recommending much stricter measures to control the virus. 

Additionally, the population of upperclassmen remaining in their apartments also existed in the spring without contributing to widespread outbreaks, according to Vruwink. 

“Public Health officials on numerous occasions this summer expressed concerns with plans by the UW Madison to return students to campus, given the Covid-19 pandemic,” she said. “Due to the spike in Covid-19 cases caused by UW campuses coming back to in-person instruction, Harvard and Brown Universities are now recommending that Wisconsin, along with a handful of other states, implement safer at home policies and eliminate non-essential travel. As a state, our rate of case growth jumped 146% in the past seven days. We all have a say in slowing that number, including the UW System. The UW still has tools available to help mitigate disease spread, like full time virtual learning.”

“It’s also worth noting, we never saw case counts like this when classes went virtual and underclass students were sent home from dorms just a few months ago,” she continued. “Presumably upperclassmen/women faced similar challenges then with apartments and living situations but proceeded to learn online. Even going fully online at this juncture we think would allow the UW to send a strong signal to its faculty, staff, and students that it recognizes the severity of this situation and impact it’s having on the public health of our community.”