As of Oct. 17, 2020, the state of Wisconsin surpassed 166,000 COVID-19 cases. According to a chart from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, cases continue to rise.

In a statement, Gov. Tony Evers referenced college campuses as hotspots for COVID-19 outbreaks when discussing the rapid spread of the virus across the state.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison and UW-Green Bay are both located in counties battling over 11,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases. The critical difference between the two counties, however, is the level to which each respective school contributed to virus transmission within the county.

According to the UW-Green Bay COVID-19 dashboard, the school has maintained an average positivity rate of 0.89% since school began. A member of the Coronavirus Task Force and a professor at UW-Green Bay, Brian Merkel expressed his pride regarding the university’s low case numbers.

“This positive rate is astoundingly low considering the rate in Brown County at large,” Merkel said.

According to Merkel, UW-Green Bay established an effective bubble on campus. Because many of its classes are online, the university successfully reduced the transmission of the virus.

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Merkel said the University’s low positive test rate was a direct result of student cooperation.

“You can have a perfect plan, but if people don’t follow it, you won’t get anywhere,” Merkel said.

Merkel also touted information available on the Phoenix Forward website, which includes detailed descriptions of COVID-19 symptoms, as well as a detailed description of testing and contract tracing. The website also includes a daily self-assessment for both faculty and students to complete.

Apart from educating and informing the students about the necessity of following all safety protocols, UW-Green Bay has a weekly testing regimen similar to that of UW-Madison. According to Merkel, the school works with the local hospital to conduct their tests, even creating makeshift clinics to address the increasing needs.

UW-Madison implemented a series of COVID-19 prevention measures and procedures similar to those seen at UW-Green Bay. According to UW-Madison’s COVID-19 plan, students living in campus dorms must be tested weekly. All students must wear masks indoors and are expected to monitor themselves for symptoms regularly.

Despite similar COVID-19 safety regulations, UW-Madison faced a much higher rate of infection among its community. UW-Madison’s COVID-19 dashboard reports an average positive rate of 3.8%, about four times that of UW-Green Bay.

According to the Wisconsin State Journal, UW-Madison saw a decline in positive cases, yet it is unclear why. Theories include students following the safety regulations more rigidly or campus officials punishing students for violating rules.

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UW-Madison Professor Matthew Turner said the sheer size of the university allows outbreaks to spread faster.

“It’s much easier to control a school like UW-Green Bay, primarily because it’s much smaller than UW-Madison overall,” Turner said.

Merkel said though he felt proud of his university’s progress in fighting COVID-19, their smaller size was undeniably helpful.

Turner also said part of the reason UW-Madison struggled more than UW-Green Bay is due to its substantial off-campus population. Roughly 60% of students live off-campus at UW-Green Bay, while approximately 74% of UW-Madison students live off-campus.

“More students off-campus means less that have to follow the guidelines, or risk their housing being revoked,” said Turner.

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Both professors said the reason cases increased was a lack of adhering to safety guidelines. Merkel specifically mentioned large gatherings without masks as a common epicenter for an outbreak.

Both Turner and Merkel agreed educating students to ensure they understand the need for protocols would prove to be the most important factor in successfully controlling COVID-19 outbreaks.

“By having the support of students, you are able to largely avoid the large gatherings that end up spreading this virus,” Merkel said.

Merkel and Turner said containing the virus has to start with the student body — the largest demographic on any college campus.