‘Mere luck’: Scientists reflect on fall COVID-19 surge on UW campus – say situation could have been much worse

MADISON, Wis. – Researchers who took part in a study analyzing the outbreak of COVID-19 cases on UW-Madison’s campus during the fall of 2020 say it’s remarkable cases did not spread further into the community.

The study, led by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, shows UW’s decision to enforce a two-week lockdown on two of its largest residence halls in September was the strongest contributing factor to isolating the cases to campus.

It was kind of surprising to see, because there was everything – the situation was just kind of right for it to go wrong,” said Gage Moreno, a graduate student at UW whose research contributed to the study. “I think there was just a big element of luck. It’s really hard to pinpoint exactly what went right in terms of why it didn’t spread over into the community.”

Moreno says while the decision to lock down the two dorms slowed the spread of the Coronavirus throughout campus and beyond, the increase of testing students bi-monthly to bi-weekly worked to continue that containment.

We saw that this outbreak spread quite rapidly at the beginning of the semester and that suggested that every other week testing might not be frequent enough in a scenario like the one we were seeing,” said Dustin Currie, an Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer with the CDC.  

Scientists like Currie and Moreno are still working to answer why Witte and Sellery Hall’s saw outbreaks to begin with.

“We do know these are the largest residence halls with high density on campus,” Currie said. “The whole genome sequencing data indicates there was substantial intermingling between the students. There was overlap in basically the viral genome in the two outbreaks suggesting these weren’t two unique outbreaks, they were sort of one, larger combined outbreak.”

The fact that it didn’t spread into the community was just mere luck,” Moreno said. “I don’t really have a better answer for that. I know a scientist is supposed to have all of the answers, but I think it really just comes down to an element of luck.”