The University of Wisconsin System has secured more than 350,000 COVID-19 tests ahead of the fall semester.
Interim System President Tommy Thompson said on a media call with reporters Thursday those tests will be used to test students showing symptoms of COVID-19, and provide tests every other week for students living in residence halls. The System also will hire about 52 people to administer tests across UW campuses.
Thompson said the COVID-19 tests are less expensive and have a faster turnaround time than tests previously being eyed by UW System when it requested $110 million from Gov. Tony Evers to offer students free testing. Thompson said he has confidence in the cheaper tests, which he acknowledged are accurate roughly 96% of the time, compared with the 98% accuracy of more expensive tests.
“There are going to be some false negatives and that’s problematic, but to get the test back quickly and have a 95%-96% accuracy ... you bat .300 and you get into the Hall of Fame, nobody bats .960,” Thompson said. “We think 96% is pretty darn good.”
In addition to testing for coronavirus, Thompson said the tests also will be able to identify asymptomatic individuals and if someone has influenza.
The System earlier this year asked Evers for $60 million to offer free testing this fall to students and employees showing symptoms of COVID-19. Officials also requested another $50 million for masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and other personal protective equipment.
On Thursday, Evers announced $32 million in financial assistance to the UW System to help cover the cost of testing, staff and personal protective equipment. The funds will be made available through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
UW-Madison, which has its own COVID-19 testing plan, will receive $8.3 million to help purchase more than 130,000 tests and cover other equipment and staffing costs. The remaining $24 million will go to other UW System campuses.
“The COVID-19 pandemic brings great uncertainty and having robust testing efforts is one of the most important tools we have to help box in this virus and make sure our students stay healthy and safe,” Evers said in a statement.
UW employees earlier this month raised concern that neither the UW System nor campus leaders knew how many students and staff had tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began. System officials plan to create a public dashboard to showcase testing data that will launch in the fall.
Many students have not been on individual campuses since spring and most employees have been working remotely, so it’s likely the number of cases on campus could very well be low.
Last month, the UW Board of Regents unanimously passed a mask mandate for all 26 campuses requiring face coverings in all classrooms and indoor public spaces.
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