UW System Interim President Tommy Thompson, right, and UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt pose after using a hammer to ring the bell on a “Smash COVID” carnival game during an event at the university Monday to promote students being vaccinated against the virus. (Photo by Julian Emerson)
UW System Interim President Tommy Thompson, right, and UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt pose after using a hammer to ring the bell on a “Smash COVID” carnival game during an event at the university Monday to promote students being vaccinated against the virus. (Photo by Julian Emerson)

UW leader swings a hammer and raises the goal for students to be protected from the coronavirus.

Interim University of Wisconsin System President Tommy Thompson said Monday he believes at least 80% of students attending the state’s public universities can be vaccinated against COVID-19 this fall, a figure he said will help keep those schools open to in-person learning. 

Thompson said that figure is attainable during a visit to UW-Eau Claire to promote COVID-19 vaccinations among students and staff. UW System officials previously set a 70% goal for student vaccinations, but universities are making progress on that front, Thompson said, prompting him to up the figure. 

“We are close to 70 percent of our students. I think that is fantastic,” Thompson said during a press conference at a university event to promote vaccinations. “But that is not good enough. I think we can get to 80 percent.”

Thompson’s Eau Claire visit comes as COVID-19 cases have spiked statewide in recent weeks, driven in part by the especially contagious Delta variant. Many coronavirus outbreaks are occurring in K-12 schools across the state since the new school year has begun with face-to-face learning and as most school districts don’t require face coverings. 

The number of students who have been vaccinated so far was not available Monday, but a UW System spokesman said that figure is expected to be released later this week. At UW-Eau Claire, as of Monday morning, 6,435 students, or 68%, had been vaccinated against COVID-19. University Chancellor James Schmidt said he was “confident” that figure was at or above the university’s 70% goal by Monday afternoon, thanks in part to Monday’s pro-vaccination event. UW-Eau Claire’s faculty vaccination rate is at 96%, he said. 

“We’re going to keep telling our students that it’s important for them to get vaccinated,” Schmidt said of the voluntary recommendation. Students who get vaccinated must provide documentation to be be counted toward the university’s goal. “It’s the best way for us to continue to provide instruction in our classrooms.”   

Boosting the number of COVID-19 vaccinations is necessary to prevent spread of the contagious virus and allow instruction at UW System schools to maintain in-person, said Thompson, a former Republican governor of Wisconsin and the former Secretary of the US Department of Health & Human Services. Many students struggled to learn at the end of the 2018-19 school year and for parts of last school year, when the coronavirus pandemic forced learning to go online.

“We don’t want to have to close down,” he said. “Our students want to be learning in the classroom, and we need to do everything we can to make sure they can continue to do that.”

Thompson said he will continue to oppose backlash from some state Republican lawmakers who contend UW System officials can’t implement COVID-19 safety measures without first seeking their approval. State Sen. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) wants the state Legislature to sue the UW System for its refusal to obtain the permission of the Republican-controlled Assembly and Senate before implementing safety measures such as COVID-19 vaccinations.

“I’m not going to back down,” Thompson said when asked about Republican opposition to efforts to curb COVID-19 on campuses. “We’re going to listen to science and do whatever we need to do to keep our students and faculty safe.”

To help convince students to get vaccinated, the UW System has offered various monetary incentives, including 70 scholarships of $7,000 apiece to be given out systemwide. Additionally, universities are offering their own incentives. For instance, UW-Eau Claire is giving out 50 scholarships, each for $1,000, to students who can prove they have been vaccinated. The university is doling out other weekly prizes, including smart watches, computer tablets, and gift cards. 

Wyatt Knox, a UW-Eau Claire freshman from Minneapolis who has been vaccinated against COVID-19, said he appreciates the effort of university officials to promote vaccinations against the virus. He said he believes the scholarship incentives “are definitely convincing some students to get their shots.”

Thompson was doing his best to convince them to do just that. As he walked through the UW-Eau Claire campus mall Monday, he approached one student after another, asking them their names and whether they had been vaccinated. The affable, enthusiastic Thompson was in his element, chatting amicably with students, exchanging high fives and posing for countless photos. 

At two different points he and Schmidt swung hammers to ring a bell on a “smash covid” carnival game. Then they called students to join them in ringing the bell. 

“C’mon guys. You can do this! You can smash COVID!” Thompson said before approaching another group of students to discuss the importance of being vaccinated against the virus. 

Thompson’s stop at UW-Eau Claire is among visits he is making to campuses systemwide to continue to push for vaccinations. During his stop in Eau Claire the university’s marching band performed, and subsequently informed Thompson that 98% of its more than 400 members are vaccinated. 

“They were so pleased to tell me that,” Thompson said of band members. “That’s the kind of example we want to see happen all over.”

Since Aug. 23, 18 positive cases of COVID-19 have been reported at UW-Eau Claire out of 2,485 tests, according to university data. That relatively low rate is because of safety measures in place, Schmidt said, and vaccinations play a major role in that. 

“The virus is still here, but we know a lot more about it than we did last year,” Schmidt said. “We know some ways to help contain it, and a big part of that is the vaccine.”