As omicron continues to surge across the country, the University of Wisconsin will provide rapid antigen tests free of cost to students and employees and have one COVID-19 PCR testing site in the spring semester.

In a campus-wide email, Chancellor Rebecca Blank said UW has extended the mask requirement for inside UW buildings through March 1. UW will provide high-efficiency and surgical grade masks to students and employees for free.

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UW also announced plans to integrate antigen testing into its spring semester strategy. Blank’s message said the university will provide more information about how students can obtain free antigen testing kits at the start of the semester.

In an email statement to The Badger Herald, university spokesperson Meredith McGlone said students and employees can take home antigen testing kits from campus locations at no cost and use them immediately or when needed.

“As you’re seeing around the country, rapid tests are increasingly being used in response to the omicron variant because they allow for faster detection and isolation,” McGlone said.

In the statement, McGlone said the University Club will serve as the only PCR testing site for the spring semester — down from four sites the university hosted last semester. As first reported by the Wisconsin State Journal, students struggled to find on-campus testing appointments as omicron cases climbed at the end of the fall semester, causing some to cancel or delay winter break plans.

According to the FDA, early data suggests that while antigen tests detect the omicron variant, they may have reduced sensitivity. The sensitivity of antigen test varies depending on when it is used in the course of your infection. The FDA said it is still evaluating the sensitivity of antigen tests to the omicron variant, and clinical studies are ongoing.

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On the number of omicron cases recorded on campus, McGlone said UW does not track those statistics and all sequencing to determine virus variants is done for research purposes.

Both off-campus and University Health Services contact tracing are facing delays due to increasing COVID-19 cases.

“COVID-19 cases are reaching record highs in our community and state, and we are aware that many students, faculty, and staff may have recently been exposed or tested positive, causing disruption to personal and professional lives,” Blank said in the email.

Wisconsin reported 14,865 cases on Jan. 6 — the highest COVID-19 cases the state has documented in one day. According to Public Health Madison & Dane County, community transmission in Dane County is “high” with a positive percentage of 18.8%.

Dane County hospitals are about 75% full, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ICU beds in the county are at nearly 85% occupancy — with 103 beds out of 121 in use.

Blank said tried-and-tested precautions such as wearing well-fitting masks, staying home and getting tested will provide “strong protection” against COVID-19 on campus as the university moves forward in-person learning — an approach that is on par with most of UW’s Big Ten peers.

“We are closely monitoring the public health situation and consulting with medical experts as we work on plans to continue in-person instruction, events and other activities for the spring semester beginning Jan. 25,” Blank’s email said.