covid cases surge campuses open
Interim University of Wisconsin System President Tommy Thompson initiated a system-wide COVID-19 dashboard to track outbreaks on college campuses.(Photo Milwaukee Press Club and WisPolitics.com.)

Wisconsin’s new cases come on a stunning 17.5% positivity rate.

Just one week into a new school year, University of Wisconsin System schools are grappling with how to contain surging coronavirus infections that on Thursday set a new single-day state record, topping 1,500 daily cases for the first time. 

Rapidly spiking COVID-19 cases prompted UW-Madison officials to announce late Wednesday that classes will be conducted online-only during the next two weeks as they struggle to slow the spread of the contagious virus. Students living in Sellery and Witte residence halls were told Wednesday night they will be quarantined. Some are returning home rather than remaining in the dorms for the next two weeks, university officials said.

The university campus in Madison now has 1,433 students who have tested positive, with 946 of those students living on campus and 514 classified as off-campus students. In addition, 27 employees have tested positive for the virus, according to a dashboard tracking COVID-19 cases at UW System schools that went live on Wednesday. 

Other UW schools are experiencing growing COVID-19 caseloads as well. According to the COVID-19 dashboard, 69 UW-Whitewater students have tested positive as of 9 a.m. Thursday. That figure is in addition to the 51 students who tested positive last week. 

Whitewater, unlike some other college campuses, provides the number of isolation rooms available. As of Thursday morning, 22 students are in isolation in rooms on campus. The campus has 113 total isolation rooms. 

COVID-19 cases are also rising at UW-Eau Claire, where 100 students had tested positive for the virus as of the end of the day Wednesday, the dashboard shows, along with 17 faculty and staff. Twenty-three students tested positive for the virus on Wednesday. 

Nearly 200 students living in six residence hall floors have been quarantined after possible exposure to those infected with the virus. As at UW-Madison, some of those students have left for their homes despite warnings and recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and the Eau Claire City-County Health Department that doing so could potentially spread the illness to others, said Michael Knuth, UW-Eau Claire associate director of marketing and communications. 

At UW-Platteville, Wednesday’s 20 new COVID-19 cases meant 57 total there, and UW-La Crosse added another 21 positive tests, bringing the total for Tuesday and Wednesday at the university to 33. 

Several schools have reported relatively low instances of the virus so far. For example, UW-River Falls has reported just four positive COVID-19 cases, the same number recorded at UW-Green Bay.  

Outbreaks at colleges have sparked concern in those communities because students interact with others, spreading the virus. Dane County accounted for 482 cases in Thursday’s DHS report, an unheard-of number prior to the opening of the Madison campus. Public health officials recommended that Madison residents who have been downtown in recent days be tested for the virus.

In Whitewater the City Council voted against a proposed ordinance Wednesday night that would have capped indoor gatherings at 10 people and outdoor gatherings at 25. UW-Whitewater Interim Chancellor Greg Cook spoke in favor of the ordinance at the meeting.

“To be honest with you, we’re not far behind,” Cook said after reading to council members the breaking news from UW-Madison. “And it’s going to have an impact on the city.

He said he feared it is “probably too late,” to contain the virus, adding “we should have done this over a month ago.”

The Eau Claire City Council discussed concerns on Tuesday about students gathering at taverns near the university without wearing face masks and not practicing social distancing. Eau Claire County has reported record one-day increases of positive cases of the virus in recent days and recorded 199 new cases of the virus in the past week. 

Officials at several UW system schools said the action taken Wednesday at UW-Madison to curtail the spread of COVID-19 is a warning sign that continuing classes with a mix of in-person and virtual learning, and having students living together, may prove challenging. They said they’re monitoring cases closely at their schools and watching how others are handling the virus. 

UW-Eau Claire still has ample housing remaining to quarantine students who contract the virus, Knuth said. For now university officials plan to continue school in its current format, he said, but that is subject to change if cases of the virus grow significantly. 

“This is such a dynamic situation,” he said. “We’re playing this as it comes to us, sticking to our plan and making adjustments as best we can. We have to remain flexible.”

Thursday’s DHS report marks the second time in six days Wisconsin has logged approximately 1,500 new COVID-19 cases in a single day. There were 1,498 reported on Sept. 4, but much of that was chalked up to delays in processing tests after a problem with the state’s reporting system early last week.

A tweet from the Dept. of Health Services encourages people to “look at 7- and 14-day averages. Those smooth out day-to-day fluctuations and more clearly show the trends happening in our state.” But even then, the numbers show 7,025 new cases over the past seven days with a positivity rate of 13.4% versus the previous seven days with 4,718 new cases and a positivity rate of 8.4%.   

With 10 additional deaths reported Thursday there have been 47 lives lost in Wisconsin from coronavirus over the past seven days compared with 35 for the seven days prior.

Prior to last week, Wisconsin had seen seven instances of daily new cases above the 1,000 mark, all between July 23 and Aug. 14, and all with positivity rates between 6% and 9%.