The University of Wisconsin is sticking to its plan of providing just one testing site for 47,000 students and 24,000 faculty and staff members for the spring semester, despite record-high COVID-19 cases in Dane County.

More UW students and employees tested positive during the first week of January than at any point since August 2021. Nonetheless, several of the university’s testing sites have been closed heading into the spring semester, including Union South and the Pyle Center.

The only remaining testing site on campus is the University Club, which will operate with a capacity of 5,000 testing appointments per week. This is insufficient given the current surge in Omicron cases.

In mid-December, UW students were also having trouble getting tested. UW urged students to get tested before going home after finals, and some faced testing requirements to travel. But the university did not have the capacity to follow through on its own recommendations. Not enough appointments were available, which directly interfered with many students’ winter break travel plans.

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In an email sent out by Chancellor Rebecca Blank earlier this month, it was announced that students are being asked to complete two tests before beginning class, “one before they return to Dane County and one after they arrive.”

While the university’s mask mandate and weekly testing requirement for unvaccinated students will remain in place, UW has no way to ensure that students actually follow the new testing measures at the beginning of the semester.

With cases reaching record highs and testing capacity maintained at previous levels, how does UW expect to provide enough tests to go around?

The university has already expressed concerns of testing scarcity on their COVID-19 response page.

“We need everyone’s cooperation in using campus testing resources responsibly,” UW said. “If you are using campus PCR testing, avoid no-shows or last-minute cancellations.”

Testing scarcity should not be an additional fear that immunocompromised students and staff are burdened with, and students should not have to worry about whether or not a test will be available to them if they start to feel sick or need a PCR test to travel. UW’s rhetoric about using testing resources responsibly demonstrates the university’s awareness of the storm of positive cases that is coming.

In an apparent attempt to make up for the lack of PCR tests, UW has begun offering free at-home antigen tests to students, providing one test per person per week. Students in residence halls are able to pick up an antigen test upon move-in, and off campus students can pick up an antigen test at Memorial Union or Union South.

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This effort serves as a preliminary step in detecting COVID-19 as students move back, but studies have shown that antigen tests may be less able to detect omicron, especially in the early days of infection. Many experts are encouraging people to confirm antigen results with a PCR test, which UW does not have the capacity for.

The alarming possibility of false negatives does not bode well for the return to in-person classes.

In addition, students, staff and faculty are not required to submit their positive antigen test results to UHS. If the majority of students utilize the at-home antigen tests, this will lead to misleading positive case rates on the UW COVID-19 Dashboard.

UW’s COVID-19 Dashboard also does not indicate what percentage of the positive cases are due to the omicron variant, which will make it difficult to interpret the state of the virus on campus. While not requiring students to report positive at-home antigen tests aligns with state guidelines, it ignores the city-county health department that encourages people to report at-home positives to “better understand the level of virus spreading in our community.”

Not having access to accurate data on how many students on campus are infected with omicron is highly dangerous and puts all of campus at risk. UW must become more transparent with positive antigen results and positive omicron cases if they continue to depend heavily on at-home testing.

Staffing shortages have been cited as a reason for only having a singular testing site.

“We are continually working with multiple suppliers to expand our supply in this period of higher viral spread and public demand for tests,” a statement from the Chancellor said.

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Considering the 94.8% vaccination rate on campus and the relatively low number of positive cases on campus in the fall, a few months ago it may have made sense to consolidate to one testing site. But despite a record-setting surge in cases with the Omicron variant, the university has shown a disregard for students’ and employees’ safety and accessibility needs by not moving to re-open any additional testing sites.

The Teaching Assistants’ Association of Madison recognizes the loopholes of UW’s plan and is demanding a switch to remote learning for the first two weeks of classes. According to reporting by The Badger Herald, the TAA gave a letter of their demands to the Office of the Chancellor in-person Jan. 24. The group, joined by student government leaders and activists, cited safety concerns as well as accessibility concerns that the University Club testing site is not accessible to graduate students in Eagle Heights.

The university is remaining steadfast in its decision to return to in-person classes, but does not have the testing infrastructure to justify this risk that will jeopardize the health of students, faculty and staff.

We are nearly two years into the pandemic, and the biggest lesson to be learned is that adaptability on an institutional level is crucial. Increasing PCR testing capacity would set campus up for a stronger and safer start to the semester. UW must take further steps to protect its students and employees during the peak of the Omicron wave.

Leah Terry ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in political science and communication arts and pursuing a certificate in public policy.