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Northwestern Mutual joins a growing list of employers, healthcare systems, and schools dealing with an explosive growth in coronavirus variant infections because so many people remain unvaccinated.

As the COVID-19 Delta variant continues to spread in Wisconsin, employers and universities are implementing mandates and requirements again for mask-wearing and now for vaccinations, even as Republican legislators try to restrict or ban such safeguards. 

On Friday, Northwestern Mutual Life became the first large non-healthcare firm in the Milwaukee area to announce a vaccine requirement for select workers and visitors at its area offices, according to WTMJ-TV. A company email said unvaccinated employees who are part of an “opt-in” program will have to work remotely as of Aug. 11 because of the rapid spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus.

Last week, Epic Systems, Dane County’s largest private employer, announced it will require its employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by October. 

Healthcare systems around the state are adding a proof-of-vaccination requirement, including Ascension Wisconsin, Children’s Wisconsin, SSM Health, Mayo Clinic Health System, Advocate Aurora, UW Health, Froedtert Health, Marshfield Clinic System, Prevea Health, Essentia Health, ProHealth Care, and Medical College of Wisconsin. Mayo Clinic, Aspirus Health, and Wisconsin Medical Society joined many health care organizations in calling for mandatory vaccinations for health care workers across the country. 

UW Health says its staff is 90% vaccinated, and around the country the vaccination rate for doctors tends to be substantially higher than for other health care workers

Universities Choose Safety Despite Lawmaker Demands

Private schools in the state like Lawrence University, Marquette University, and Beloit College are requiring COVID vaccinations, and other rules are in place for the fall semester to regulate the health and safety on Wisconsin campuses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has returned to advising those vaccinated to wear masks, so St. Norbert College is following this guidance and requiring masks indoors regardless of vaccination now that Brown County’s transmission level is considered substantial

UW-Madison reintroduced a campus-wide mask mandate on Wednesday for students, employees, and visitors. This announcement came just hours after Republican state legislators voted to give themselves power to block any and all coronavirus-related rules throughout the UW System.  

Chancellor Rebecca Blank said the university is also thinking about expanding testing requirements for unvaccinated people on campus. Currently, the plan for the fall semester is to test unvaccinated students weekly who are living on campus, but this requirement could be extended to employees as well. 

“I’m totally on board with wearing masks in UW buildings, as long as we can learn in person. Having a semi-normal semester interacting with peers and professors in a classroom setting is all I can really ask for,” UW-Madison student Emma Gleed said. 

Like Gleed, Faculty Senate Member and UW-Madison professor Eric Sandgren is eager to return to classrooms. He has heard concern, mostly among professors and faculty, about carrying the virus home to their children who are not yet vaccinated, but he also felt isolated with online classes last year, unable to make the same connections he has with students in years past. 

It will take adjustment to lecture through a mask and gauge understanding with masked students, but Sandgren is ready to take those new challenges on.

Sandgren felt that the school responded excellently last year to COVID-19 with the information they had at the time. Looking forward, he acknowledged that rapidly changing statistics from this summer will cause a lag in what administrative measures are taken in response, as these decisions take time to implement. 

“There will always be disagreement over what’s needed, but at least they’re listening to everybody’s concerns,” he said. 

He also noted that his knowledge of infectious disease and herd immunity from teaching at the veterinary school carries over to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“What we do is based on our understanding of disease. It’s not based on our politics, because we want to do what’s best for our animals. The situation is exactly the same in the human population,” Sandgren said. “Keeping us safe is a medical issue based on characteristics of the disease and of the people that can get affected, but that simple, obvious herd health approach has been overshadowed by politics.”

Public schools like UW-Madison are subject to acknowledging the political perspective of the state Legislature, he said, comparing the administration’s decision-making process to walking on a tightrope, requiring a delicate balance between what is safest for the campus and what will not cause commotion politically. So far, he said they are making steps in the right direction to protect public health despite political pressure. 

UW-La Crosse, UW-Eau Claire, UW-Stout, Milwaukee Area Technical College, Edgewood College, UW-Green Bay, UW-Stevens Point, and Madison Area Technical College are also returning to explicitly requiring masks indoors. UW-La Crosse is also reinstalling Plexiglass barriers around campus. 

UW-Green Bay’s website encourages but doesn’t require students, faculty, and staff to wear face coverings in communal spaces, unless they have verification of their vaccination status. Its main campus in Brown County is currently at a high level of community transmission, according to CDC data. 

Mark Karau, a professor at UW-Green Bay, said, “I think the UWGB administration has handled this crisis extremely well. In all honesty, I don’t know what more they could have done to protect students and staff while still delivering our typical high quality education.” 

UW-Milwaukee now requires masks indoors on campus for all students and staff, after recent recommendations from the Milwaukee Health Department. 

Though most public universities aren’t requiring COVID-19 vaccinations, UWM started a vaccine incentive program for students who send in their proof of vaccination to be entered to win over 100 prizes. 

Another new piece of guidance the CDC issued recommends masks for students, staff, and teachers regardless of vaccination status in K-12 schools, especially with children under 12 not yet able to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. And no matter what a school district’s policy says about face masks on school grounds, a federal CDC mask requirement for students and drivers remains in place on school buses as it does for nearly everyone using non-private transportation including trains, taxis, and planes.

Safeguard use is expected to grow as the number of new infections soars, largely due to the number of individuals refusing or delaying vaccination despite the safety record and pleas from healthcare professionals. In Wisconsin, nearly 2.9 million people have been fully vaccinated, but that number is 49.6% of the state population, still less than half the total and far from a level of herd immunity that would protect more of those particularly susceptible to infection.

UPDATE 8/13: This story has been updated since publication with additional organizations and schools, and quotes from UW-Madison professor Eric Sandgren.