MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A top University of Wisconsin System official said Monday that students will be allowed to return to campus for the spring semester and take more in-person courses, hoping that more robust COVID-19 testing will help stave off the outbreaks that forced the system to turn to online-only instruction a few weeks into the fall semester.
Meanwhile at the state Capitol, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican leaders continued to squabble over a new COVID-19 relief package, with Evers offering what he called a compromise proposal and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos accusing the governor of walking away from the table.
UW Board of Regents President Andrew Petersen said he expects students to be able to return to their schools safely. The system plans to test students living in dorms for the disease at least once a week. Students living off-campus and faculty and staff will be tested at least once every two weeks. UW-Madison, the system's flagship school, will test all students twice a week.
Regents want to see more in-person classes than schools offered in the fall, saying such instruction is far preferable to online learning or a hybrid model, he said. Chancellors will work with faculty to determine how best to implement in-person instruction, he said.
“Every barometer and metric that we measure right now suggests we'll be back in January,” Petersen said.
UW schools shut down in March as the virus began to spread in the state., sending students home to finish the semester online. Faced with dwindling revenue, system leaders decided to resume in-person instruction in the fall semester.
Students living in dorms were tested every other week and students living off-campus didn't have to get tested at all. Major outbreaks erupted almost immediately when students returned to campus. COVID-19 was so rampant at UW-Madison, the state's flagship university, that the school temporarily moved all its classes back online and locked down thousands of students in two of its largest dorms for two weeks.
The number of positive tests on campuses has dropped dramatically since then. As of Thursday, the the seven-day positivity rate was 1% at UW-Platteville, Parkside, Madison, Green Bay and Eau Claire.
Petersen said that the system will have administered more than 500,000 tests by the end of December for students, faculty and community members. He added that he hopes system campuses can become regional vaccine distribution hubs this spring.
While UW has been preparing for the spring semester, Evers and Republicans have been trying to hammer out a deal on COVID-19 relief legislation for weeks to no avail.
The governor released a new package Monday, calling it a compromise and urging Republicans to take it up before the end of the year.
The package would make some concessions to Republicans, including requiring the creation of a plan to address a lingering backlog in unemployment benefit claims and the addition of extended hours at the state's unemployment call center. Republicans have been criticizing Evers for months for not doing enough to eliminate the backlog.
But the proposed package contains a number of items that Republicans have branded nonstarters, including an extension of the suspension of a one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits until July.
Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu has said he wants to tap the state's Medicaid surplus to cover testing and overflow facilities for COVID-19 patients. Assembly Republicans have proposed their own package that would prohibit employers and the government from requiring vaccinations, offer weekly COVID-19 tests for home use and make it harder for schools to hold online classes. Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu also want oversight of federal aid and vaccine distribution.
Vos said in a statement that Monday's proposal is so ineffectual that Evers is essentially walking away from the negotiating table.
“It’s the Governor’s job to work with us and negotiate a Covid package, not just give us his summary of where he thinks we are,” Vos said. “I would hope he’d reconsider his decision to walk away from the table. Assuming he continues this path, I look forward to continuing the discussion with the Senate so that we have a final bill early next month.”
Wisconsin health officials reported 1,435 new confirmed cases and eight more deaths on Thursday, pushing its pandemic totals to 458,612 cases and 4,425 deaths.
About 10,360 people in Wisconsin have received Pfizer’s vaccine since federal regulators authorized the drug for emergency use on Dec. 11, according to the state Department of Health Services. The state received 49,725 doses of the vaccine with another 35,100 doses expected to arrive this week, perhaps as early as Tuesday or Wednesday, DHS Deputy Secretary Julie Willems Van Dijk said.
The Pfizer vaccine requires two doses about three weeks apart. The 35,100 doses coming this week are first doses, Van Dijk said. The state was initially promised a second shipment of 49,725 but Van Dijk said federal officials have said that was only a planning estimate and it’s now unclear when those second doses will arrive and how many the state may get.
Evers, meanwhile, announced that the state is in line to receive 100,000 doses of Moderna’s vaccine, with an initial shipment of 16,000 arriving this week. Federal regulators authorized that vaccine for emergency use on Friday.
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