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DHS pushes back on GOP lawmaker’s move to block UW COVID policy

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MADISON (WKOW) -- One of the state's top health officials defended requirements the University of Wisconsin System put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Senator Steve Nass (R-Whitewater), who oversees a powerful committee that can set or approve rules for state agencies, announced Wednesday night he wanted to require the UW to get lawmakers' approval for pandemic-related policy changes.

Nass cited in his release the UW System's plan requiring students to provide proof of vaccination; students who are not vaccinated would then be subject to weekly testing.

The university system currently does not have plans to require vaccination as a condition of being on campus.

Nass said seeking to know students' vaccination status and possibly enacting a new mask order were policy decisions over which he wanted lawmakers to have the final say.

"Unfortunately, some chancellors in the UW System consider themselves mini-Andrea Palms not beholden to following state law," Nass said referring to the former Secretary-designee of the Department of Health Services, who's now in the Biden Administration after never receiving a confirmation vote from the GOP-controlled state Senate.

Nass's chief of staff said the Whitewater Republican was traveling out of state Thursday and unavailable for an interview.

DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said the more contagious Delta variant combined with the typical conditions of college living meant UW officials should be left to decide which prevention measures are necessary.

"Students live in high-transmission settings; in dormitories, there are lots of students in small apartments and our university leaders need every tool in their toolbox to be able to respond as the disease evolves," Van Dijk said.

Since the UW System is considered a state agency, it would have to abide by any rules set by the JCRAR. The committee alone can set policies for state agencies without any say from the full legislature or the governor.

UW System President Tommy Thompson, who's been at the center of the university system's pandemic-related messaging, said the universities have been taking "nimble and reasonable" to prevent spreading the virus to students and visitors.

"Given my experience as a former United States Health and Human Services Secretary, I know the biggest threat to in-person classes this fall would be actions that strip the UW System of the tools it has so successfully used to date to address outbreaks and reduce the spread of COVID-19," Thompson said in a statement.

The Joint Committee for Review of Administrative Rules is scheduled to hold a paper ballot vote Tuesday on making the UW put its COVID-related rules before the committee.

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A. J. Bayatpour

Capitol Bureau Chief

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