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Capital City Sunday: UW System committed to in-person instruction, COVID-19 spikes at bars & testing supplies denied

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MADISON (WKOW) -- As cases of coronavirus continues to spike in Wisconsin, UW System President Tommy Thompson is confident they will still offer in-person instruction this fall at all campuses. 

“I can assure you the professors, employees and the students will be taken care of and we will do everything possible so their experience will be one that is healthy, educationally, and socially the best any student can have,” said Thompson.

The former Republican Governor officially began his term as interim president of the University of Wisconsin System last month and has a difficult task ahead as campuses struggle financially due to the uncertainty around COVID-19.

Thompson acknowledged there’s been some anxiety from UW officials about returning to campus but believes they have plans for any challenge that may arise including if an outbreak occurs.

At least 5% of dorms on all campuses will have reserved space for those who test positive for the virus, said Thompson. Students who live in the resident halls will also be tested even if they don’t have symptoms.

“Asymptomatic students that live in the resident halls will be tested and will do everything we possibly can to trace these individuals,” said Thompson.

Face masks will be mandatory inside all University of Wisconsin campus buildings after the Board of Regents unanimously agreed on the policy. It also encourages wearing maks outside on campus when physical distancing is not possible.

When asked if the virus continues to get worst Thompson said he doesn’t have plans to scale back plans to move all classes online.

“If we have an outbreak will take that into consideration and consult with health experts at the state and federal level,” he said.

In June, the UW System unveiled a series of recommendations from its Plan Ahead Team which focuses on public health, personal protection equipment, and facility modifications.

UW SYSTEM BUDGET  

Thompson also said he’s not sure if the UW System will receive the $110 million he requested from state budget funds to help testing efforts, contact tracing, and personal protective gear for campuses.

So far, Thompson said he received $19 million but still needs about $91 million. He also banking on Congress as they negotiate the next stimulus package to provide funding to higher education. 

ENROLLMENT

Surprisingly in midst of a pandemic, Thompson said enrollment is up at UW campuses compared to last year. 

“It's actually up," he said. "I’m cautiously optimistic we’re going to have the same enrollment or slightly better than last year’s enrollment.”

The UW System's spokesman Mark Pitsch said they have not finalized enrollment numbers and said Thompson was referring to admission reports that indicate some campuses are seeing an uptick.

"At this time, preliminary discussions have shown a few schools may be up and some are facing declines," said Pitsch. "Admissions, an earlier lead indicator, has been solid at a number of our universities."

TAVERN LEAGUE OF WISCONSIN

President of the Tavern League of Wisconsin believes they are being unfairly targeted after state health officials say a likely source of spikes in COVID-19 cases is transmitted from bars and restaurants. 

“I don’t think it’s a fair assessment to put the blame on our industry as I think there are a lot of other factors out there,” said Chris Marciano, president of the tavern league.

Health officials say bars are of particular concern because groups of people are mixing and bars are often loud spaces that require loud talking to communicate which can spread infectious droplets farther.

“There might be places out there that are not following our best practices but I think the tavern industry is well situated to implement best practices because we’ve been certified in safety and hygiene,” said Marciano.

Public Health Madison & Dane County have also identified barbecues and Fourth of July celebrations also contributed to the recent increase in cases. 

Marsicano also went on to accuse public health officials of downplaying the role of recent large protests for racial justice which he believes is a factor in the uptick in cases.

State and local health officials tell 27 News all available evidence from contact tracing interviews has shown the protests are not a significant contributor to new cases.

The threat of another shutdown of bars and restaurants is frightening for Marsicano and he believes most of his members won’t ever be able to open again if forced to closed.

“If we close again our business will not survive and a lot of us are falling between the cracks when trying to apply for PPE and other bailouts,” said Marsicano.

TESTING AT ASSISTED LIVING FACILITIES SIDELINED

State health officials are changing how they monitor some of the most vulnerable to COVID-19 by prioritizing testing staff at nursing homes over long-term care facilities. 

Right now, assisted living and long-term care facilities are being denied testing supplies to screen employees because the Wisconsin Department of Health Services said nursing homes are their "top priority."

Darla Armstrong the Chief Operation Officer at Elderspan Management who's had a total of 9 residents and staff test positive back in May called the recent changes frustrating and concerning.

Asymptomatic cases are our biggest concern, they certainly can be spreading it without even knowing it,” she said.

While staff continues to wear personal protective gear and physically distancing themselves when possible, Armstrong says in some circumstances employees have to provide hands-on care to residents.

DHS said if their capacities for testing improve, routine retesting "may become available for other high-risk settings."

While they wait, Armstrong said they continue to search for companies to supply testing. Exact Sciences said they can’t contract directly with long-term care facilities but did offer single tests for $110 apiece.

To test all Elderspan employees that would be $40,000 according to Armstrong. 

The only other option they’ve found is a lab in Georgia that is willing to help as most of the tests could be billed through Elderspan's insurance.

“That’s probably our most viable options and it seems frustrating that we would have to coordinate that but that’s all we can find at this time,” said Armstrong.

Emilee Fannon

Capital Bureau Chief

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