Update on COVID-19 response

To our students, faculty and staff, I want to start by recognizing how frustrating the beginning of this semester has been. This was not how we envisioned the start of the academic year.

In particular, I want to acknowledge that the numbers of positive COVID-19 tests that we’re seeing on campus have been higher and increased more quickly than we had anticipated at this point in the semester– and gone up faster than among most of our peer schools.

I understand that people on and off campus are worried and upset about these cases– I am as well. As I said when we recently announced our two-week switch to online instruction, we must bring our daily case totals down and we are taking aggressive action to do that.

The health of our community remains our largest concern. We said from the start that we would follow the data and take action if COVID-19 posed a threat to our community.

With the rise in infections, we have taken the following significant additional actions over the last week including:
• Working with Public Health Madison & Dane County, which quarantined two dozen fraternity and sorority chapters
• Directing all undergraduate students to limit in-person interactions and curtailed access to spaces where close congregation is most frequent
• Ordering a two-week shift to virtual learning
• Imposing strong restrictions on the students in Witte and Sellery, where cases have gone up much faster than in other dorms, in addition to improving food service and support for students
• Amassing resources to quickly test specific populations at highest risk

We are almost certainly going to see significant case numbers continue over the coming week. We are testing everybody who is a live-in student at the fraternities and sororities, and everybody in Witte and Sellery. That means we’re identifying people who test positive and moving them into isolation.

I know not everyone agrees but I believe the decision to open campus this fall remains the right one, for several reasons. In-person instruction is a better way for most students to learn. Our safety protocols for classrooms have worked; to date we have no evidence of any transmission from classroom settings.

Further, regardless of how we delivered instruction, most of our students had plans to be in Madison this fall. Our reasoning is that it is better for students to have some structure in their schedule with some in-person classes, lots of visible messaging about health protocols, and access to in-person testing.

Our choice to start with a hybrid semester of in-person and on-line learning is the same choice made by almost all our peer schools. And the health protocols we have put in place on campus seem to be effective, suggesting that we can conduct teaching and research safely. We have no evidence of transmission that has occurred in an on-campus classroom or work setting, and very few employees have been ill.

From early on, we emphasized the need for extensive testing that would allow us to monitor the virus and act quickly. All along, we have been guided by advice from medical experts and public health professionals here on the UW campus and by extensive data

We instituted a robust testing plan and by September 14 will have performed nearly 30,000 since mid-August. We’ve been transparent with the data, providing daily updates to the public. We’ve consulted leading experts, including Nasia Safdar, medical director for infection control at UW Health, and Jon Temte, associate dean of the School of Medicine and Public Health, and our staff is in daily communication with local public health officials.

In the next week, we expect to further expand our testing capacity, by processing our first samples at the Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Lab on campus, as well as launching a rapid, LAMP-based surveillance testing partnership with UW researchers Dave O’Connor and Tom Friedrich. These LAMP based tests deliver results in around 30 minutes and can be deployed to areas of concern to quickly identify and isolate those individuals who may be infectious.

We’re also planning to add more contact tracers to the significant staff we have already. We want to do contact tracing for any students or staff who go to the Alliant Center for their tests, to reduce the burden on county public health staff.

We’ll continue to watch the data and be guided by advice from medical and public health professionals and make decisions in consultation with UW System and Board of Regents leadership.

In addition, we’ve watched closely the experiences of other universities across the country and have done our best to gather information that might inform our approach. Specifically, we were aware that off campus conduct would be an issue and deployed staff into student neighborhoods to look for parties and encourage compliance. By our count, this includes multiple staff from Student Affairs and UWPD logging many hours in recent weeks.

Remember that many UW students live off campus and even those who live in residence halls spend a good portion of their time off campus, where our university protocols and rules are harder to enforce. It’s tremendously difficult to change behaviors, and a small percentage of the population can have a big impact because infection transmission multiplies quickly. That makes a strong partnership with our city and county all the more important.

There have been and will continue to be serious consequences for those who have violated our standards. The Office of Student Conduct and Community Standards is investigating over 300 students for conduct violations related to COVID and reviewing 12 students for emergency suspension. We are taking these violations very seriously and holding students accountable, including removing them from housing and the institution. It is the responsibility of all of our students and employees to act in the best public health interest of our campus and local community.

This week and next will be critical. We will be looking at the data each day and sharing it with you through our dashboard. I very much hope that by the end of next week, we’ll see a downturn in positive cases.

I want to close with a statement to our students. Thank you to everyone who has been following our health protocols. I know that this is the majority of you. For those students who have not, I hope that you are learning something from the explosion in infections that we’ve seen. Even if you yourself are largely unaffected by this virus, you can infect others who are at greater risk.

Badgers care about their community. All of us want to finish this semester with more face-to-face instruction, and a trajectory toward more “normal” operations on campus. That requires attention to health protocols not just on campus but off campus as well. Let’s bend the curve and keep it low.