Meeting the continuing challenge of Covid-19

On Tuesday, we will begin our fifth semester operating during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I share everyone’s frustration that the virus continues to negatively affect our lives, both at home and on campus. We are clearly at a point where institutions and public health agencies worldwide are beginning to plan for how to live and operate alongside COVID as it continues to evolve.

The direct health impact on those who are infected (and their families) is only part of the cost of this disease. The pandemic has also been hard on parents and children with disrupted school and childcare schedules; it has disrupted employment; it has limited the time we can spend with relatives and friends; it has affected travel and vacation plans; and it has been hard on those caring for parents or grandparents in assisted living facilities.

I’m proud that this university has continued to provide support to our students and staff through vaccinations, testing, and other health services. Our faculty have been on the front lines of research about COVID-19, and many have been advising our community, state and nation about appropriate next steps.

None of what we’ve accomplished could have happened without the dedication, perseverance and flexibility of our faculty and staff navigating an endless set of campus emails and — as our information and the course of the virus changed — a changing set of protocols.

But we have navigated these problems with some success.  Students have attended class, researchers are in their labs, there have been live arts and music performances, and evenings on the Terrace. I have received heartfelt messages of thanks from students and parents who appreciated the chance to celebrate graduation for the classes of 2020 and 2021 with an in-person event in Camp Randall.

As the virus has evolved, our approach to campus operations continues to evolve and I’m again asking for your trust, patience and flexibility.

As we begin spring semester 2022, I am thankful for the presence of vaccines and boosters and the incredible participation of campus in our vaccine and masking efforts. At the same time, the Omicron variant has resulted in higher, but generally less severe, infections across the country, including Wisconsin.

One thing that we have learned over the past four semesters is that COVID-19 will continue to be present, in ever-evolving forms, for the foreseeable future. Our goals remain the same: Carrying forward our essential teaching, research and outreach missions, creating the best possible experience for our students, and providing resources and care for our community.

Faced with these realities, we are transitioning into a new phase in which we will continue to employ proven strategies to reduce risk, such as masking and additional testing while providing support, flexibility and resources for those who become ill. This approach is being employed by many of our peer universities, as well as K-12 schools.

I recognize there are many in our community whose daily lives are still deeply impacted by the risk of COVID-19 — those with compromised immune systems and caregivers of young children, for example.  I ask that everyone continue exhibit grace and understanding for their colleagues at this time, including the liberal use of leave and work flexibilities.

Last week, we shared detailed information about our plans for this semester for faculty and staff.

We also answered questions from the community during a town hall event at noon on Friday, Jan. 21. The event is archived and I’d encourage you to watch it.

I also want to take a moment to address a few of the most common questions that I continue to hear as we talk about the semester.

Q. What is the campus testing plan?

This semester, in response to the omicron variant of COVID-19, UW–Madison is offering a greater variety and a larger quantity of tests than last semester, at no cost to students and employees. We are maintaining our previous capacity of 5,000 PCR tests per week. In addition, we have received delivery of a significant quantity of antigen tests which will allow us to provide them to students for recommended testing prior to the beginning of the semester.

Beginning on January 25 (the first day of instruction), we plan to begin distribution of antigen tests to individual faculty and staff as well who are experiencing symptoms or who may have been exposed to infection. We are continually working with multiple suppliers to expand our supply in this period of higher viral spread and public demand for tests.

Q. Why will campus have a single testing site? And why use antigen tests?

Consolidating at one testing site allows us to utilize PCR capacity and staff more efficiently. Like all organizations, we are facing some staff shortages.

Antigen take-home kits provide added convenience because they can be picked up and used when needed. Most antigen testing provides results within 15 minutes. This type of test is useful for quickly detecting current infections and containing the spread of disease.

We need everyone’s cooperation in using campus testing resources responsibly.  We encourage everyone to take advantage of the growing number of off-campus antigen testing resources, including four free kits offered by and up to eight free kits per person per month covered by health insurance. And if you are using campus PCR testing, avoid no-shows or last-minute cancellations.

Q. Can instructors shift courses online?

Instructors have received additional instructions from the Provost’s Office encouraging them to take another look at attendance policies in anticipation of the potential for more frequent student absences, particularly early in the semester, making course materials and assignments easily accessible to students who may need to miss class due to quarantine, isolation or other illness and thinking about the best types of exams and assessments.

Instructors are expected to teach course sections, including lectures, discussions and labs, in the modality indicated in the class schedule. View this guidance for situations when an instructor or multiple students in a course will be absent.

Q. Is campus requiring a certain type of mask?

Masks continue to provide important protection, including against the omicron variant. Given the high transmissibility of the omicron variant, a well-fitting mask is more important than ever. In keeping with the most current CDC guidance, we encourage you to regularly check the fit of your masks  and wear the most protective mask you can that fits you well.

University policy does not require a specific type of mask, because fit and other factors that are important in mask selection vary from person to person, but the university has purchased a large quantity of high-efficiency and surgical grade masks and are making these available at no cost to employees. Check with your department/center about mask distribution.