UW System President Thompson praises vaccine ‘miracle,’ anticipates smooth second semester

MADISON, Wis. — News of at least one FDA-approved vaccine and another nearing the same status excites a man who tends to be energized to begin with.

“This is like a miracle,” UW-System President Tommy Thompson said.  “This is like Miracle on 5th Street. 

“We have an opportunity to get a vaccine created in less than a year.  Never done before in the history of our country, in the world.  And we have a vaccine now that we can finally corral this COVID-19 and get it out the back door.”

Thompson — who served as the federal Health and Human Services Secretary under President George W. Bush — has not received a vaccine himself yet, but intends to get one when he’s allowed.  

The former Wisconsin governor spoke with News 3 Now during a 10-minute Zoom call Friday morning.

“Vaccines are safe. They go through a tremendous amount of rigor and safety,” Thompson said.  “I’ve been there, I was secretary (of HHS), I will vouch for the safety of it.  I’m gonna get vaccinated and I’m gonna yell to the high heavens, ‘I got vaccinated, I’m safe.’”

REACTION TO OPERATION WARP SPEED

This week, Wisconsin received its first shipment of Pfizer’s vaccine. The state’s portion was just shy of 50,000 doses, destined for frontline health care workers first.

The state Department of Health Services developed a “hub and spoke” model to distribute the vaccine, using eight regional “hubs” to store the shipments and distribute out through the “spokes” to other hospitals and providers. 

However, DHS Secretary-Designee Andrea Palm told reporters on Wednesday she did not have many details on when the next shipment would arrive. Palm pleaded for more “visibility” on distribution from the federal government.

“You have a change of administration, a new vaccine, you have a holiday season and all of this and they’re still rolling out millions of doses of vaccine. That’s not easy and so something’s going to give on it and it’s going to be communication,” Thompson said. “Not everyone’s going to get the communication they want as soon as possible.”

Thompson also pushed back on criticisms over the Trump Administration’s handling of the pandemic, choosing to focus on the successes of Operation Warp Speed, calling it “American ingenuity.”

“Everybody should be applauding the vaccine and applauding the fact that President Trump did it,” Thompson said.  “You can have your problems with President Trump, you can vote for him or against him, but you’ve got to give the man his credit where credit is due.”

PREPARING FOR SECOND SEMESTER

The UW System officially heads into winter break Dec. 23, completing a semester that got off to a rocky start. Thompson made the call in August to hold in-person classes, but an early surge in cases led to dorm lockdowns and a temporary shift to all-virtual classes at the flagship campus in Madison in September.

Since then, schools have gotten case counts under control and vastly expanded on- and off-campus testing. According to the University of Wisconsin’s COVID-19 Dashboard, UW-Madison’s 7-day positive rate briefly hit over 10% in mid-September. Monday, the rate had fallen to less than 1% for students and 1.1% for employees.

We test once a week, now we’re going to test every residence hall, every employee once a week,” Thompson said of second semester plans. “We haven’t been able to do that in the first semester, we’re going to do that in the next semester. And every student off campus is going to be tested every other week.  We didn’t do that last time.”

Thompson praised university students for complying with mask and distancing rules, calling them “exceptional.”

PREVENTING A POST-CHRISTMAS SURGE

Concerns over a potential surge following the Thanksgiving holiday did not materialize, which doctors believe may be because people heeded their warnings.

Thompson doesn’t want anyone — students or the general public — to take any risks during the Christmas holidays. He encouraged people to stick to the usual measures of mask-wearing, hand washing, and getting tested if you have symptoms or a potential COVID-19 exposure.

“If we do those things… and I’m confident our students will do that because it’s been instilled in them, I feel very confident coming back in the next semester, we’re going to be better organized, better tested and safer than ever,” Thompson said. “I absolutely am convinced that that’s going to take place.”