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Capital City Sunday: UW System President Thompson on campus outbreaks; clerks sending out ballots after SCOWIS ruling

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Wisconsin has experienced a spike in COVID-19 cases with the most dramatic increases in case rate happening in communities that have a college campus.

Interim UW System President Tommy Thompson joined Capital City Sunday to discuss the outbreaks at several of the system's campuses. Thompson, who is the only Wisconsin governor to have been elected to four terms, and also served as United States Secretary of Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush, said overseeing the UW System during a pandemic is unlike anything he's ever experienced.

Thompson said there were some chancellors within the UW System who did not want to reopen their campuses this fall.

"I'll be very honest with you. Not all the chancellors thought it was the right idea but I told them we could do it, we'll do it safely," Thompson said. "I said 'trust me, we're going to be able to do it and I'm sure you're gonna be satisfied and happy to be part of it."

At UW-Madison, more than 2,000 students have tested positive for COVID-19. Chancellor Rebecca Blank has moved all classes online and ordered students in two dorms and in several Greek houses to quarantine in place. Those orders are in effect through at least September 23.

UW-La Crosse has reported more than 200 confirmed cases among its students and has also moved to online-only coursework. In Grant County, the home of UW-Platteville, the rate of tests coming back positive has increased from about three percent to nearly 15 percent since students returned to campus.

Thompson said there were no specific triggers that would lead the system or any of its universities to send home students.

"We don't have an artificial number," Thompson said. "I got something in my mind that I think would trigger something but I know what I'm doing and I wanna make sure we test and make sure those students and that those students are treated as safely and as healthy as we possibly can."

Thompson acknowledged many businesses in communities where UW schools are located depend largely on the presence of students for most of the year. Thompson said fiscal considerations, either for surrounding businesses or for the UW system itself, did not drive the decision to reopen campuses for housing and in-person learning.

"I can tell you, point blank, it was very little," Thompson said. "It was whether or not we could bring the students back safely, whether or not we could give them a quality education. Those are the two issues -- quality of education and safety."

Special Testing for Football

After initially postponing the 2020 football season, the Big Ten conference announced it was reversing field and would play in the fall, kicking off the season October 23 and 24.

In order to safely play football this fall, the Big Ten said it would provide rapid testing daily to players and staff in the conference's 14 programs, including UW-Madison.

Thompson said such rapid result antigen testing was available at some of the system's campuses but not the flagship in Madison. He said UW-Madison was primarily using PCR tests, which are more accurate than antigen tests.

"It's the same test we're using," Thompson said. "It's not in Madison but it's in all the other campuses."

Critics among the university's students and faculty have said the football protocol is evidence of the institution misplacing its priorities. They argue football staff should not have access to a level of testing that is unavailable to anyone else on campus or in the surrounding community.

The Big Ten has said it will cover the cost of rapid testing for each program and will not cost the schools anything.

While the stands at Camp Randall Stadium will be empty during Badgers home games, Public Health Madison & Dane County, as well as county executive Joe Parisi have publicly expressed concerns about Badger tailgates and watch parties becoming super-spreader events.

"You know, you can't control everybody all the time," Thompson said. "It's impossible, and if you tried, you'd fail."

Ruling Prompts Absentee Ballot Rush

When the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled on Monday to keep Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins off the November ballot, it allowed county and municipal clerks across the state to move forward with the process of packing and mailing out absentee ballots.

"We had already printed our absentee ballots so they were sitting there, waiting to be distributed to our clerks," said Rock County Clerk Lisa Tollefson. "The clerks in the municipalities kept printing the labels to be prepared but we couldn't stuff anything. We had to wait."

Tollefson said waiting several days to begin distributing absentee ballots was stressful because of the September 17 deadline to have ballots mailed out to voters who had already requested one.

Tollefson estimated 60 to 65 percent of Rock County voters will choose to submit absentee ballots for the November election. Thus far, Tollefson said the county has fielded about 25,000 ballot requests.

As for election day itself, Tollefson said county employees will help staff polling places. She added there is still some concern usual poll workers, many of whom are at high-risk of developing a severe infection if they catch the coronavirus, will opt out of working this election.

While more than 2,400 state National Guard members mobilized for the controversial April 7 election, Tollefson said she's unsure whether the guard will be able to help staff elections in a similar capacity on November 3.

"We're not sure if we'll have National Guard for November because we don't know what's going to be going on in the rest of the state in different scenarios," Tollefson said. "Whether there's a natural disaster or what could happen where the National Guard has already been called."

Tollefson added her office has fielded a number of calls from confused voters who've received campaign mailers that included an application for an absentee ballot.

"We've had many different versions from all different spectrums from each party, each side -- groups that are just trying to help people get to vote, that's their main focus, is non-profits trying to get people to vote," Tollefson said.

Tollefson added there's nothing illegal or suspicious about political groups trying to get people to sign up for an absentee ballot. Still, she advised any voters who want an absentee ballot to request one at myvote.wi.gov instead of applying through a political organization.

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A. J. Bayatpour

Reporter, WKOW 27

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