Dane County Exec asks UW to send underclassmen home for semester

    Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory
    UW-Madison's on campus COVID-19 testing will be run by the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. (Photo by Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

    After a massive spike in COVID-19 cases in Dane County, largely attributed to UW-Madison students returning to campus, County Executive Joe Parisi asked in an open letter for university officials to send underclassmen living in the dorms home for the semester. 

    Dane County has seen its highest daily infection rate of the pandemic since students returned to campus. More than 1,000 students and employees have tested positive for the virus, according to a university dashboard

    “The rapid increase in positive cases over the past week comes after Dane County had dramatically lowered caseloads through aggressive public health orders aimed at pushing down numbers and rates of infection,” Parisi wrote. “We are an interconnected community. The University is an integral piece of our identity as students and staff live, work, and recreate here. Given that, the UW’s experience with Covid-19 stands to have a profound effect on the health of the greater Dane County community.”

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    Parisi’s open letter to UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank and UW System President Tommy Thompson requests that students in residence halls return home, the school establish more quarantine facilities for infected students, triple the amount of university-employed contact tracers and increase testing capacity. 

    “The University made the decision to proceed with holding classes this fall despite recommendations from local and national experts,” Parisi wrote. “We all love our great

    University and what it brings to our community. Unfortunately, given the pandemic, congregating

    these students has significantly impacted the capacity of the public health system, local public

    health efforts, and may impact the health of our community.” 

    Parisi said that 74% of the county’s infections since Sept. 1 came from the university and student testing is taking up about 25% of the daily capacity at the county’s community testing site

    After just one week of classes, the school had been forced to quarantine several Greek life organizations and Blank had ordered all students to restrict their movement for 14 days. 

    Parisi specifically asks the university to send home students in residence halls, which excludes any upperclassmen living in off-campus housing who are likely to stay in Madison even if all classes are moved online. 

    For underclassmen who would be sent home, Parisi asked that they quarantine for 14 days to prevent spreading the virus across the country. In recent days, Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, who have been leading the country’s COVID-19 response, said that colleges shouldn’t send students home because of the risk  to their home communities

    In a statement, Blank said that the university’s current actions are enough to handle the virus and prevent unnecessary strain on local health officials.

    “County Executive Parisi and I both share similar concern for the health and well-being of UW-Madison students and the residents of Dane County,” Blank said. It’s the university’s goal to be a partner with the city and county and not unduly strain limited resources.  To be clear, we have created significant testing capacity on our campus, which has had available slots every day for members of the campus community. It is also why we have hired, and continue to hire dozens of contact tracers, and have set aside more than 1,000 spaces for students in need of isolation or quarantine.

    The university recently entered a two-week period of reduced activity for undergraduates, but recognizes that cases will continue to rise among students in the short term,” she continued. “We will continue to evaluate our operations in light of this changing situation.”

    Henry Redman
    Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.