With vaccinations underway across the state, the University of Wisconsin System is in talks with the federal government about becoming a COVID-19 vaccine distribution hub.

"We think that's exactly what the UW System should be doing in a time of pandemic," UW System Board of Regents President Andrew Petersen said in an interview Tuesday, Dec. 22. "That's something that I'm incredibly proud of."

The system has the assets in 13 regions of the state to do so, Petersen said. Earlier this year, it received a personnel loan from the federal government to pay for the staff needed to administer community tests.

"We believe we can partner with state government to get additional resources and leverage that for the betterment of our communities," he said.

In addition, there are 4,000 nursing students across the system who would receive a $500 stipend for helping.

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In September, UW campuses began testing residential students every other month, and in November campuses opened free, rapid COVID-19 testing sites to the community. During the fall semester, the system delivered about 500,000 tests to community members, students and employees.

Looking back on the last semester, Petersen said he "couldn't be prouder" of how the system's universities handled operations during a pandemic.

That said, he noted that the system got off to a rocky start. Under Wisconsin law, schools can't start before Sept. 1, unlike other schools around the country that started in August. That meant students' first week back ended Labor Day weekend, which led to many large gatherings.

"That coupled with our standing up of pretty rigorous testing on all of the campuses kind of became an intersection point where we saw significant spikes in COVID positive cases on the campuses," Petersen said, citing quarantine events that took place on the Madison, River Falls and La Crosse campuses.

Looking ahead

As for next semester, Petersen said talks with students, parents and community members have revealed a desire for more in-person learning.

"We want to see more in-person delivery of curriculum than we saw in the first semester," he said. "I think that'll happen."

The board is working closely with university chancellors to determine what their ratios of online to in-person classes will be.

Petersen said the system has seen no evidence of COVID-19 transmission in the classroom, where students and educators are required to be masked and physically distanced.

"We've learned from our students," he said. "I've got to give them tremendous credit. This culture of responsibility they have emulated throughout the semester is terrific, and we fully anticipate that they'll maintain that as we go into the second semester."

On top of that, as of Monday, Dec. 21, no UW campuses had weekly testing positivity rates above 5%. Weekly positivity rates are the percentage of completed tests that have come back positive. Public health officials widely consider 5% and above to be the threshold for widespread community transmission.

Large, off-campus gatherings were the most common way COVID-19 was transmitted among campus community members.

The latest federal COVID-19 relief bill allocated $23 billion to higher education, but the system doesn't yet know how much it will receive. Petersen said he and UW System interim President Tommy Thompson will make the case that it deserves its "fair share."