Parisi raises alarm in letter to university asking for undergrads to be sent home amid COVID-19 spike on campus

MADISON, Wis. — A Dane County leader is raising an alarm in a letter to University of Wisconsin-Madison officials asking them to send undergraduate students home amid a spike in COVID-19 cases on campus.

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said in a letter dated Wednesday to University of Wisconsin System President Tommy Thompson and UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank that he has a “deep concern” about the number of new cases stemming from campus increasing the probability of community spread and burdening the health care system ahead of flu season.

“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 said. “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.”

UW System spokesman Mark Pitsch said in a statement Wednesday afternoon that Thompson and Blank are working together on “mitigation steps as student cases at UW-Madison increase,” and that sending students home amid the pandemic isn’t smart.

“While we review Dane County Executive Parisi’s letter, we will be sure to take into consideration all the recommendations from local, state and national health officials to protect students, faculty and staff,” Pitsch said. “For example, sending students home to communities throughout Wisconsin is not a wise solution, especially as UW-Madison continues to have quarantine space available, a robust testing program, and protocols that protect students and staff.”

Blank responded in a statement saying that she shares Parisi’s concerns, and she reiterated that the university has “created significant testing capacity on our campus,” is continuing to “hire dozens of contact tracers,” and said the university has set aside “more than 1,000 spaces for students in need of isolation or quarantine.”

In his letter, Parisi had asked that the university to designate more on-campus quarantine facilities, triple the number of contact tracers on campus within the next 30 days and increase testing.

READ: Parisi letter to UW 9-9-20

“The recent surge of positive cases already far overwhelmed capacity the UW had put in place to follow up on cases. Timely and effective contact tracing is critical for isolation,” Parisi said.

Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway called the situation “very concerning,” saying that Public Health Madison & Dane County will continue to monitor the affects of student gatherings and community spread through contact tracing interviews and data analysis.

“We will continue to advocate for aggressive targeted interventions with sub-sectors of our community and the campus community as needed,” Rhodes-Conway said.

She also noted that the county health organization “has limited legal authority to enforce local emergency orders against the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a state agency,” citing a memo from Madison Assistant City Attorney Doran Viste dated Aug. 4.

Earlier Wednesday, PHMDC said anyone who lives or works in the downtown Madison area should assume they’ve been exposed to COVID-19. Parisi had also said in March — when community spread was beginning in the area — that anyone in Dane County should assume they were exposed.

Parisi said that since Sept. 1, at least 74% of Dane County’s new positive COVID-19 cases were from campus, and he asked Thompson and Blank to send students living in dorms back home for the rest of the semester.

He said that according to initial contact tracing from Public Health Madison & Dane County, as of Wednesday there are at least 46 separate outbreaks affiliated with the UW-Madison.

“Given the nature of how Covid-19 spreads in group settings, reducing numbers in residence halls will help lower the risk of additional spread,” Parisi wrote. “If the UW decides against this, I respectfully encourage you to increase university staffing to support student compliance with local public health and UW directives on and off campus.”

In Dane County, health officials said the age group with the largest amount of COVID-19 cases is people between 20-29 years old, with a total of 2,384 cases. People 10-19 have the next largest confirmed count with a total of 1,230 cases. But the age groups with the most deaths are people ages 70-89; 23 people in that age group have died in Dane County. Forty-one people in the county have died from the coronavirus total, but to date no one under the age of 30 in the county has died from it.

PHMDC dashboard data as of Sept. 9

On Wednesday, collated state and county data showed 794 new cases of the virus throughout Wisconsin, which is slightly below Tuesday’s case count. Fifty-five more people were hospitalized with COVID-19 between Tuesday and Wednesday. The seven-day average for new cases per day is 886, according to DHS.

On Monday, Blank asked UW-Madison undergraduate students to limit their in-person interactions and restrict their movement for the next two weeks to limit the recent rise in coronavirus cases.

Last week, White House coronavirus task force member Dr. Anthony Fauci advised that universities not send students who test positive with the virus home, because they could spread it. Instead he said universities should keep students who test positive sequestered from other students.