Weeks before University of Wisconsin campuses reopen, neither UW System nor campus leaders know how many students and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past five months.
The absence of that data alarms some UW employees, adding to their concerns about campus plans to offer face-to-face classes and open up residence halls.
"That seems like a fundamental thing to be tracking and accounting for in their planning," said Alyssa Franze, president of United Faculty and Academic Staff, a longtime union on the UW-Madison campus that does not have collective bargaining powers. "It again raises questions to administrators about what metrics they're using to make these decisions to reopen."
System spokesman Mark Pitsch acknowledged that the System has not collected COVID-19 case data for students and staff but said that officials plan to create a public data dashboard that will launch in the fall. More information was not available Friday, July 31, because details are still under discussion.
"We have found that rather than thresholds it's more important to be constantly monitoring the situation and working with local, state and national health officials," Pitsch said. "Our universities have worked with great care and due diligence to protect our communities, students, faculty and staff as we prepare to open this fall."
UW-Madison plans to launch its own public dashboard sometime after the university's first free, drop-in testing site opens Thursday by appointment.
The number of cases associated with individual campuses since March could very well be quite low, considering that many students left in the spring and most employees have been working remotely.
But it's impossible to say because most, if not all, campuses haven't collected their own data.
Spokespeople at the System's 13 universities either did not respond Friday, referred the Wisconsin State Journal to the System or pointed to county-level data collected by local health departments, which are working closely with campuses as they craft their reopening plans.
Relying on a county-wide COVID-19 dashboard is the "bare minimum," Seton Hall higher education professor Robert Kelchen said. He highlighted the University of Texas-Austin's dashboard as a good model for institutions to follow and said self-reporting university-specific data instills more trust as the summer fades into fall.
"Colleges need to be more transparent to make students and employees feel confident about coming back to campus," Kelchen said.
National case count
Over the course of the pandemic, a time when far fewer students and staff were at universities than is expected this fall, The New York Times identified more than 6,600 COVID-19 cases linked to college campuses across the country.
"What is clear is that despite months of planning for a safe return to class, and despite drastic changes to campus life, the virus is already spreading widely at universities," the newspaper reported.
The Times described its case count as "almost certainly an undercount" because some institutions provided partial numbers, others refused to answer basic questions, citing privacy concerns, and hundreds of colleges did not respond at all.
The project published last week surveyed every public four-year college, as well as every private institution that competes in Division I sports or is an elite research university. Theoretically, every UW campus, as well as Marquette University, should have been included in the database of nearly 1,000 universities, though none of the institutions appeared to be represented.
Marquette maintains a COVID-19 dashboard of confirmed cases among faculty, staff and students in or around the campus community that is updated weekly. The university reported 92 total cases since late March, 74 of which came from students. A spokeswoman did not respond to an email asking why the data was not included in The Times' database.
As for UW campuses, the universities weren't in a position to collect and verify the data within the newspaper's time frame, Pitsch said.
There have been at least 10 publicly reported COVID-19 cases at the flagship campus, nine of which involved student athletes during the summer. The 10th came in March when the university reported that a School of Veterinary Medicine employee tested positive after traveling internationally.
But that is likely an undercount, considering the number of people in their 20s who tested positive earlier this summer.
Because Public Health Madison & Dane County has handled nearly all case notification and contact tracing for Dane County residents, UW-Madison hasn't received information about all cases involving UW-Madison faculty, students and staff, university spokeswoman Meredith McGlone said.
Asked how many cases for which the university has received information, McGlone didn't say, instead referring to the city-county health department as the best source for current information.
"It is critical that the public and the campus community have a comprehensive and accurate understanding of the prevalence of COVID-19 in Madison and Dane County," she said. "Public Health Madison Dane County's reporting follows the best practice for this."
The lack of information on campus-specific COVID-19 cases is one of many issues UW-Madison employees have raised as the fall semester approaches.
The University Committee, a group of professors representing UW-Madison's Faculty Senate, led the charge last week in pressing the administration for more information and better communication about the reopening process.
One committee member pointed out in last week's meeting that UW-Madison's reopening plan has yet to say whether employees are required to report positive test results to the university, even though a couple thousand researchers have already at least partially returned to their labs.
UW-Madison's reopening plan indicates more information on the reporting process will be announced soon. Officials did not respond to questions about what information, if any, will be publicly reported if an outbreak occurs in a particular class or residence hall, or in the event of a death.
UW System has encouraged universities to develop campus notification procedures in accordance with medical and privacy laws, Pitsch said. Those notifications have been and will continue to be made on a case-by-case basis depending on the circumstances at hand.
"We cannot speculate on scenarios devoid of context," he said.
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