Officials at UW-Eau Claire  announced Wednesday they have begun testing about 3,900 students in university housing every two weeks to try to detect the virus and isolate students from infecting others. The university has received 5,300 antigen tests to start the process. (Photo by Julian Emerson)
Officials at UW-Eau Claire announced Wednesday they have begun testing about 3,900 students in university housing every two weeks to try to detect the virus and isolate students from infecting others. The university has received 5,300 antigen tests to start the process. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

Dane County Executive says he has “deep concern,” asks UW-Madison officials to send undergraduate students home.

[Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect UW-Madison’s move to virtual learning for two weeks. The headline was updated for clarity.]

Parents of university students, those students, and anyone else interested in the number of coronavirus cases being detected on University of Wisconsin System campuses can now track that information on a dashboard that went live Wednesday afternoon,  just hours before UW-Madison officials announced classes there will be online only for two weeks as COVID-19 cases continue to surge there and on other campuses. 

According to the new tracking system, 481 college students tested positive for COVID-19 in Wisconsin Tuesday, with the system’s largest university, UW-Madison, making up 380 of them. UW-Whitewater had the next-highest number at 45, with UW-Platteville third-highest at 24.

The 481 cases are for Tuesday only –the first day the dashboard was made public– and do not count previous positive virus cases detected at UW schools. For example, as of Tuesday 1,004 cases have been detected at UW-Madison, and UW-Eau Claire had at least 69 cases prior to Tuesday. At UW-Platteville, that total is 56.

In a letter to UW-Madison students and staff late Wednesday, Chancellor Rebecca Blank said high numbers of positive COVID-19 cases at the university in recent days prompted the decision to offer virtual learning only for the next two weeks. In addition, she said, Sellery and Witte residence halls will be quarantined starting at 10 p.m. Wednesday.

University officials have enacted testing and other measures, such as mandatory masks and social distancing, to slow virus spread. When COVID-19 cases at the university and in Dane County continued to climb in recent days, Blank directed the university’s undergraduate students to limit in-person contact to try contain the virus. 

However, positive virus cases rose higher, with the positive test rate at 20 percent or higher the past two days, Blank said, prompting the online-only order. 

“Unfortunately, our positive test rate among students continues to rise far too rapidly,” she said in her letter. “We will not contain this spread without significant additional action.”

Hours before Blank’s letter, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi asked UW-Madison officials to send undergraduate students home as COVID-19 cases spike on campus. In a letter to UW System President Tommy Thompson and UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank, Parisi said he has “deep concern” about the number of new virus cases on campus and worries they will spread to the surrounding community, stressing the Madison health care system. 

Contact tracing of positive COVID-19 cases at the university shows at least 46 separate outbreaks in recent days, Parisi said.

“The university made the decision to proceed with holding classes this fall despite recommendations from local and national experts urging virtual only classes this semester,” Parisi said in his letter. “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.”

Tommy Thompson, the interim president of the UW System, previously announced the dashboard, an effort to inform the public about COVID-19 cases on campuses. The dashboard is part of a broader plan to contain the virus at universities, which are offering a mix of in-person and virtual learning options.

Thompson has acknowledged challenges slowing the spread of COVID-19 as classes resume, even with precautions such as mandatory masks, social distancing, and smaller class sizes. Those challenges were made evident on Monday, when UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank directed the university’s undergraduate students to limit in-person contact to try contain the virus. 

Calling Blank’s directive “prudent,” Thompson said UW-Madison and other system schools are “taking aggressive steps” to try to curb the spread of the virus. Those efforts include a $32 million testing program made possible through CARES Act funding from the state. As part of that effort, the UW System ordered more than 315,000 antigen tests for system schools. 

As the number of COVID-19 cases climbs, universities are starting to implement the antigen testing program. Officials at UW-Eau Claire  announced on Wednesday they have begun testing about 3,900 students in university housing every two weeks to try to detect the virus and isolate students from infecting others. The university has received 5,300 antigen tests to start testing and will receive additional test kits as needed.

A COVID sanitation station inside Centennial Hall on the UW-Eau Claire campus. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

That effort, combined with measures such as mandatory mask wearing and social distancing efforts that include smaller class sizes, will hopefully help contain the virus, officials at UW System schools said. Results of the antigen tests are available in less than an hour, allowing universities to quickly quarantine students who test positive.  

“We are trying to be proactive, trying to get a sense of how much of this virus we have on campus,” said Michael Knuth, UW-Eau Claire associate director of marketing and communications. “It really gives you a good sense of whether there is community spread, is there a spike.”

As at other universities, UW-Eau Claire has experienced on-campus cases in recent days. On Sunday, the university announced that 69 students had tested positive for the virus, and 184 students in residence halls had been quarantined because of concerns they may have been exposed to the virus. 

On Tuesday another eight students tested positive for the virus. During Tuesday’s Eau Claire City Council meeting, council members discussed concerns about students gathering at local bars and house parties without wearing face masks and practicing social distancing. 

Then, on Wednesday, Eau Claire County announced a record one-day increase of COVID-19 cases, with 37, topping the previous record of 36 set on successive days over the Labor Day weekend. Knuth acknowledged challenges containing the contagious virus, noting he has been pleased at how many students on campus have been donning masks and practicing social distancing. 

“You can do everything right as it can still be really challenging,” he said. “You’re going to have positive cases. How students conduct themselves, especially off campus, is a big factor. You can’t control everything they do, and you can just educate them and hope they do the right thing.”