Dane County executive asks University of Wisconsin to consider sending undergrads home
Dane County Executive Joe Parisi has asked the University of Wisconsin-Madison to consider sending undergraduate students who live in dorms home as COVID-19 continues to spread.
"In short order we have reached a critical juncture in our community's work to fight the spread of illness," Parisi wrote in a letter to UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank and UW System Interim President Tommy Thompson.
"UW-Madison's nearly 1,000 cases are resulting in record numbers for our county. New daily infections are the highest they've been since the start of this pandemic," he wrote.
As of 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, 1,044 UW-Madison students had tested positive. The seven-day test positivity rate is 6.5%.
The local health department had linked at least 46 separate outbreaks to the campus, Parisi wrote.
He also asked the university to triple the number of contact tracers it has within 30 days, increase COVID-19 testing capacity and add quarantine spaces for students who live off-campus.
UW-Madison has provided its own contact tracers for campus rather than relying on health department employees, but Parisi argued they and the campus' testing system have been overwhelmed.
Blank disputed that notion, issuing a response that the university is hiring more contact tracers and testing capacity on campus is "significant." She said she shares Parisi's concern for the health and well-being of students and the residents of Dane County.
"It’s the university’s goal to be a partner with the city and county and not unduly strain limited resources," Blank said.
Blank also said she expects case counts to keep rising among students in the short term and will continue to evaluate university operations as things evolve.
On Monday, in response to rising case counts, Blank ordered all undergraduates to quarantine for 14 days, leaving home only for classes and other essential tasks. Most of the cases were among students who live in off-campus housing.
The letter is just the latest such correspondence from local lawmakers to UW-Madison. In late August, several members of the county's board of supervisors sent a letter to Blank and the head of Public Health Madison Dane County criticizing the university's reopening plan and raising concerns about whether the campus' case counts would make it harder for the county to reach the thresholds set to reopen K-12 schools.
In response, Thompson asked the county public health department to take "a more holistic view" to assess steps such as reopening K-12 schools.
"It is unrealistic to hold to a threshold of less than a few dozen cases per day on average over four weeks as we subject new populations at UW-Madison to thousands of tests," he wrote Aug. 26.
The school's graduate student workers union and newly-elected student government leaders have also called on the university to move classes back online.
Parisi's request to consider sending students home — an approach taken by many major universities nationwide in recent weeks — is an option that has come under scrutiny as of late.
Instead, some health officials have been asking students to stay put, fearing they could travel to other communities and take COVID-19 with them.
In a visit to Madison just before the Labor Day weekend, White House coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx told students not to head home for the holiday. A few days later, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said sending students home is "the worst thing you could do."
"When you send them home, particularly when you're dealing with a university where people come from multiple different locations, you could be seeding the different places with infection," he told NBC's "TODAY" show.
Thompson said he will review Parisi's letter alongside health officials recommendations, but also said sending students home while quarantine spaces and other supports are still available on campus "is not a wise solution."
Hours before Parisi sent his letter, Gov. Tony Evers also said he backs UW-Madison's attempt to reopen and Blank's 14-day quarantine order.
“Fourteen days in quarantine would scare the hell out of me if I was a 20-year-old,” Evers, a former UW Regent, said at a Milwaukee Press Club event.
Molly Beck of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel contributed to this report.