UW System’s successful testing plan won’t work statewide, but we can still learn from it

MADISON, Wis. — The University of Wisconsin System has successfully gotten their coronavirus case count down by testing students weekly. Last week, White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx thanked the UW System for bringing students back to campus, “because if they hadn’t, we wouldn’t have been able to learn from them.”

She said by testing students regularly, the universities have been able to find asymptomatic cases where students would’ve been spreading the virus without even knowing.

“They’re constantly finding those cases early and isolating them for 10 days, and that prevents community spread,” said Birx.

She suggested other colleges and communities follow UW’s lead and test 18-30 year olds proactively to find silent spreaders. A representative for Public Health Madison and Dane County said there aren’t any plans to target a certain age group for testing, and state health leaders said that isn’t an option right now.

“There is not the test infrastructure in the United States to do that,” said Wisconsin Department of Health Services Secretary-designee Andrea Palm.

While Birx wants to see other colleges implement this kind of testing, it would be difficult to create a system like this for students in technical college.

“It’s a great idea. We support the concept, we support containing the virus obviously. It’s just challenging given the unique nature of our structure,” said Conor Smyth, communications director for Wisconsin Technical College System.

He said there are many ways that technical colleges differ from UW campuses, including a lack of dorms and an inability to conduct their own testing. With most students living off-campus and only going to school part time, it would be hard to identify and quarantine students.

“To me, it isn’t a question of how do we find asymptomatic students. To me it’s a question of how do we prevent asymptomatic students from infecting others,” said Smyth.

He said for the few classes that are still on campus, masks, social distancing and temperature checks are limiting the ability for the virus to spread.

Although UW System’s weekly testing program can’t be used statewide, DHS leaders said there are still ways the community can learn from it.

“The testing was not what prevented the infections – that’s not what stopped the outbreak. What stopped the outbreak was when they found cases they were isolated,” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard. “What we really need to do is be serious about every single cases, that gets isolated effectively. All exposed people get tested, and quarantined.”