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After UW-Eau Claire students were gathering in crowds early in the semester some of the university’s seniors delivered this message to the freshmen: We want to remain on campus and we know you do too, so take the virus seriously. Wear a mask, watch your distance, and wash your hands.
At the same time, university leaders worked closely with local public health authorities to quarantine residence hall wings to prevent the spread. They even walked local neighborhoods at night to remind students of safe behavior and responsibility.
We’re very happy to report that both approaches are working. The residence hall wing quarantine was lifted earlier than expected — with the agreement of local public health authorities — and the positivity rate for students has dropped dramatically – no doubt because of UW-Eau Claire’s influential seniors but also because of the behavior of all students.
The Eau Claire example is one of several ways the University of Wisconsin System has instilled a culture of responsibility on our campuses to combat COVID-19 and keep our students, faculty, staff, and communities as safe as possible.
With the Board of Regents, we imposed a mask-wearing mandate on campus and our students are taking it seriously. We’ve seen them – they’re even wearing masks walking down the street or riding their bikes. Our university leadership, faculty, and staff are also modeling this important behavior.
We developed an aggressive testing program focused on rapid-response antigen testing to identify possible transmission earlier (with positive antigen tests followed by PCR tests as confirmation). Our chancellors are leading this effort while working closely with public health partners to track and corral the virus on and off-campus.
UW Oshkosh, for example, is testing students in residence halls every week – twice as much as we anticipated – and case rates are dropping. The university’s aggressive testing and contact tracing plan is possibly one of the most extensive in the nation for a regional university, and it has attracted the attention of the federal Centers for Disease Control, which is studying UW Oshkosh’s use of antigen testing for surveillance in college students.
UW-Green Bay is also testing students in residence halls weekly and following up with students if they don’t appear for an appointment. That has helped keep positive cases low on campus even though the positivity rates for the surrounding county are some of the fastest-growing in the nation.
When necessary, we’re taking aggressive action. As we anticipated, the quarantine at UW-Madison residence halls has lifted and some in-person classes are resuming. UW-La Crosse and UW-River Falls are on a similar track.
And, we’re being innovative. UW-Madison and UW Oshkosh have begun testing wastewater to further detect circulation of the virus in residence halls. UW-Milwaukee has launched a social media campaign to address students’ concerns about testing, isolation, and quarantine and to encourage positive, healthy behaviors.
We expected to identify new positive cases when we welcomed students back to our campuses this fall. But we also believe Wisconsin can be a leader in combating the spread of COVID-19. Our campuses are demonstrating success by first instituting an aggressive testing model, and then by working with faculty, staff, and students to create that culture of responsibility needed to succeed. At the end of September, our daily positive antigen test results were less than 1 percent across the UW System, about 80 percent lower than when we ramped up testing earlier in the month. Rates are falling on campuses, students are stepping up, and faculty and staff are engaged to make Wisconsin a leader.
–Thompson is president of the University of Wisconsin System, and Petersen is president of the UW System Board of Regents.