Just two weeks after going remote because of a COVID-19 spike, the University of Wisconsin Madison is resuming in-person activities, despite what Gov. Tony Evers described as a “near-exponential” increase in coronavirus cases in the state.
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank announced Wednesday that the 45,000-student school would return to classroom instruction and reopen some dining, recreation, and library functions. The next day, Wisconsin reported the highest number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state since the pandemic began.
There were 528 hospitalizations and 2,392 new positive tests in Wisconsin Thursday, the state’s second-highest one-day case count ever. According to a recent internal FEMA memo, case rates among 18- to 24-year olds in the state were five times higher than any other age group—and counties with UW campuses had some of the fastest-growing outbreaks.
The surge in cases tied to college campuses caused Evers to issue a new public health emergency this week and extend the state’s mask mandate through Nov. 21.
“We are facing a new and dangerous phase of the COVID-19 pandemic here in Wisconsin,” the governor tweeted Tuesday. “We are seeing an alarming increase in cases across our state, especially on campuses. This is serious and we need your help.”
But in a letter to students, staff, and faculty the next day, Blank said UW-Madison had “curbed the number of positive cases and reduced the positivity rate in campus testing over the past two weeks” and would relax some restrictions starting Saturday.
“This is good news and I’m calling on every member of our community to continue efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus and take personal responsibility to preserve the gains we’ve made over the past several weeks,” she said.
Just over a week ago, roughly 20 percent of the dorms’ residents had tested positive and more than a third of students living on campus—and more than half of students living in nearby fraternity and sorority houses—were under some kind of quarantine. The percentage of students testing positive hovered around 7 percent, according to the school’s COVID-19 dashboard.
On Friday, the school reported a 3.9 percent positive rate for students tested on the Madison campus. (It did not provide a percent positive rate for all students tested on or off-campus combined.) According to the dashboard, 35 people tested positive on campus and five students tested positive off campus that day.
Blank said in her letter that the university had expanded testing capacity and reduced turnaround time, limited the number of classes being taught in person, and doubled the number of campus contact tracers, among other safety measures.
Students and faculty have already pushed for UW-Madison to switch to online-only classes, as other campuses across the nation have been forced to do since the start of the school year. A petition from the UW-Madison graduate worker union, signed by 476 people, claimed that reopening the campus had placed “precarious” students and workers in “life-threatening danger.” A more popular petition called for the university to return fees for student services that would no longer be available due to the outbreak.
Gryffin Loya, a Ph.D. student and teaching assistant at UW-Madison, said he was disappointed in the school's decision to return to in-person classes, and felt it was motivated more by financial concerns than consideration of students' health.
“I'm just kind of really doubtful as to why we’re pushing for [in-person instruction] in the first place,” Loya told The Daily Beast. “I know that money is obviously an issue—the university needs students to attend so it can keep up and running—but I feel like a big university like Wisconsin should be able to get enough money to be fine.”
He added, “I had to take out a loan to afford my education, so I feel like a whole university should be able to as well.”
It isn’t just the universities that are contributing to the high case counts in Wisconsin. Kirsten Johnson, the director of the Washington Ozaukee Public Health Department, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that some parents were knowingly sending students to primary schools even after they tested positive for the virus. In one instance, she said, a school nurse discovered that a student had tested positive only after he showed up in the office feeling sick.
“We’ve been trying hard to work with school districts on this to help them with their contact tracing and education, and it’s been challenging," Johnson said. "I think for us, the biggest challenge for us that we’re experiencing right now is people are just being dishonest.”
A number of school districts have moved classes online for the next several weeks due to large outbreaks, and at least one—Sturgeon Bay School District—has switched some grades to entirely virtual learning due to staffing shortages. A teacher in the Howard-Suamico school district died of COVID-19 complications last week.
According to the FEMA memo obtained by ABC News, 80 percent of all counties in the state have moderate or high levels of community transmission.
Jeffrey Pothof, chief quality officer at UW-Health, told The Daily Beast he thought the focus on college campuses had led Wisconsin residents to falsely believe they were safe elsewhere.
“People started to think that as long as they did not live on a college campus or in downtown Madison, that everything else was pretty OK, when in fact everything else wasn’t OK,” he said. “We were seeing increased transmission in all of our counties.”
But he added that universities reopening—and even their recent attempts at quarantining—could have contributed to the spread of the virus in smaller towns.
“When things started to close down [and] campuses went virtual, they talked about quarantining residence halls. I just wonder how many of those kids decided to go home, were incubating the disease, and then served as the vector for these smaller communities,” he said.