MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Dane County Executive Joe Parisi demanded Wednesday that the University of Wisconsin-Madison immediately send all undergraduates living on campus home in an attempt to contain the coronavirus.
Colleges across the country have been grappling with outbreaks in recent weeks after choosing to return to in-person instruction. But UW System schools took a major financial hit after shutting down this spring and system President Tommy Thompson insisted on opening campuses this fall despite the warning signs.
Campus infections have been rising over the last month. According to UW-Madison data, 1,044 students and 26 employees have tested positive for the virus since Aug. 6.
Parisi sent Chancellor Rebecca Blank and Thompson a letter Wednesday saying that the county has reached a “critical juncture” in its fight against the virus. New cases in the county are running at least five times what they were in late August and since Sept. 1 nearly 75% of the county’s cases stem from UW-Madison, he said.
Parisi asked Blank and Thompson to force undergraduates living in on-campus dorms to return home for the rest of the semester and quarantine there for at least two weeks to avoid spreading the virus in their hometowns. He said they could continue their classes online.
He also asked Blank and Thompson to establish more on-campus quarantine facilities to house infected students rather than sending them back into group living situations; triple the number of UW-Madison contact tracers within the next month; and increase testing capacity on campus, saying he’s hearing reports that students can’t get tests because University Health Services was “booked up.”
“The University made the decision to proceed with holding classes this fall despite recommendations from local and national experts urging virtual only classes this semester,” Parisi wrote. “We all love our great University and what it brings to our community. Unfortunately, given the pandemic, congregating these students has significantly impacted the capacity of the public health system, local public health efforts, and may impact the health of our community.”
Blank said in response that the university has arranged significant testing capacity, hired dozens of contact tracers with more to come, and set aside quarantine space for students as needed. She also noted the school earlier this week told undergrads to restrict their movements the next two weeks to essential activities. Blank said the school would continue to evaluate operations “in light of this changing situation.”
UW-Madison has also ordered members of nine fraternities and sororities to quarantine themselves. City of Madison officials on Wednesday warned people who live or work downtown face a greater risk of infection due to the UW-Madison outbreak.
Parisi is a former Democratic legislator. Thompson is a Republican and was elected to an unprecedented four terms as Wisconsin’s governor.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers said at a Milwaukee Press Club event that he supported UW schools opening this fall, saying it was an “uphill fight” but opening dorms to students was bringing “some normalcy to thousands of kids.”
“This was always going to be a bumpy start to the school year,” Evers said, adding that students shouldn’t be surprised that they will have to quarantine for 14 days if they get COVID-19 or are around someone who's infected. "I know people keep telling me that 20-year-olds can’t be cannot be responsible. I think they can. I think 14 days in quarantine would frighten the hell out of me if I was 20 years old, I’d start to wear a mask and stay socially distanced before I did that.”
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report.