As the latest surge in Covid-19 cases pushes cases and deaths higher — nearly 18 million cases to date and nearly 320,000 deaths — the U.S. is entering a dangerous and deadly phase of this pandemic.
With the hope and promise of a vaccine just around the corner, it is imperative for our nation’s health care system that we stem this tide until Covid-19 vaccines can be rolled out to all Americans.
Public health officials agree on the most critical elements to reducing the spread of Covid-19: mask wearing, social distancing, frequent hand washing and, just as essential, access to rapid testing.
The Network for Regional Health care Improvement, with support from The Rockefeller Foundation, recently hosted a series of webinars highlighting best practices in Covid-19 testing. These webinars focused on recommendations for off-site testing, including how to manage outdoor sites as the weather turns colder, as well as strategies for rapid testing in college campus communities.
One of the models for best practices in mass testing on college campuses was the University of Wisconsin system, which I have the honor to lead. At the start of the Fall 2020 semester, we initiated frequent and high-volume testing of asymptomatic students. As a result, the more than 165,000 people across the university’s 26 campuses are significantly more likely to be tested on any given day than the general population. This proactive approach has allowed university officials to stop outbreaks before they escalate.
Voluminous, rapid-result testing is effective only if it is coupled with a strategy for what to do with positive results. When a student tests positive, he or she is given guidance on quarantining while awaiting the result of a follow-up PCR test. If that test is also positive, the student is moved to isolation.
The key is that the rapid-result antigen test removes a student from circulation as quickly as possible to prevent spread by someone who has no symptoms and appears to be healthy. To date, we have administered more than 250,000 tests to students with federal funds directed to us by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
Each morning in the Operations Center, university leaders monitor, campus by campus, how many tests are being performed and the results of those tests. The university system’s case dashboard posts daily results and provides links to the dashboards for individual campuses for more in-depth tracking data.
What is particularly notable about these efforts is how it is helping engender a culture of responsibility among students. As noted by Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during a recent visit to the Madison campus, frequent testing of students has encouraged them to wear masks, wash their hands, and watch their distance and reinforces these behaviors.
Today, the culture of responsibility instilled in our students has resulted in our positivity rates being below 2%, while the state of Wisconsin is registering positivity rates significantly higher. To replicate these results statewide and nationwide, the U.S. must continue to ramp up the availability of rapid testing and encourage everyone to embrace mask wearing, social distancing, and frequent hand washing in the months ahead.
To aid in this effort, the University of Wisconsin system now offers free rapid Covid-19 testing to any Wisconsinite — the first university system in the nation to provide such surge testing. More than 140,000 Wisconsinites have already used this service at the 22 campus sites across the state, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in November.
The U.S. can look to Wisconsin on how we have made a difference in combatting Covid-19, first at our UW campuses and then with our surge testing. Lessons learned from mass testing will be critical to the development and execution of a national strategy for vaccine distribution, particularly one that can reach the most vulnerable populations.
Tommy G. Thompson is the current interim president of the University of Wisconsin System. He also serves as the chairman and chief executive officer of Thompson Holdings, and is the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and four-term governor of Wisconsin.