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Under Mnookin, UW-Madison is repeating its COVID-19 mistakes – Tone Madison

Illustration by Tone Madison. Original photo of Van Vleck Hall by Chris Rycroft on Flickr.

Campus workers and community members address the new Chancellor’s lax safety plan for fall, and her responses to COVID concerns.

We are members of a group of workers and community members who are concerned about the health risks posed by the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing weakening of preventive measures at UW-Madison. With some optimism for the change in campus leadership, we delivered an open letter on August 4 to the new UW-Madison Chancellor, Jennifer Mnookin, asking for safer policies for the fall semester. We suggested looking toward policies at Chancellor Mnookin’s previous institution, UCLA, which had much stronger COVID mitigations (although UCLA is discontinuing some of them this fall). Chancellor Mnookin’s response was a great disappointment, as were the recently-announced COVID policies for UW-Madison. This focus on individual responsibility, with no push for collective safety and no requirements for masks, vaccines, or regular testing, will worsen the effects of COVID in our community this fall and winter.

We must demand that university leadership protect students and workers: improve indoor air quality, require indoor masking, require vaccinations, collect data on infections and vaccinations, and develop clear and public plans for how the university will adapt its response as infection rates change. (To be clear, we support a mask requirement that allows common-sense exceptions, such as for workers working alone, especially while engaging in strenuous activity and while in campus vehicles.)

Everyone should have access to safe working and learning conditions, tests and high-quality masks to use daily, and support to isolate and rest while sick. We cannot rely on individual responsibility for a successful response to infectious diseases. We can and must do more to protect each other, especially our vulnerable community members. We need a community-based effort. We urge the Chancellor to reconsider and strengthen UW-Madison’s COVID policies.

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If university leadership refuses to take necessary action, we’ll have to educate people from the ground up. COVID kills marginalized people at higher rates. Long COVID disables both young and old people. COVID infections cause higher risks for all kinds of problems, including heart, neurological, psychiatric, and cognitive issues. We cannot live with COVID, and there is still a lot that we can do to contain it.

The Chancellor, in her August 16 response, pointed to the high vaccination rates in the university community, but the university has ended the requirement that unvaccinated individuals need to test weekly (an important vaccination incentive) and is no longer actively collecting vaccination data. Vaccination rates are no longer included in the university’s COVID dashboard; we do not know whether the vaccination rate is still as high as it was previously, or the extent to which the community has received booster shots. Our data on the extent of COVID infections on campus has also eroded, due to the push towards at-home tests. The university does not collect and publish those results, nor even the numbers of such tests being distributed.

We were particularly disappointed that the Chancellor did not respond to questions about air quality or ventilation efforts. Improved ventilation is an important mitigation strategy to protect the campus community from respiratory viruses, and does not rely on individual choices. Air quality may be of particular concern in many of the aging buildings that the university has struggled to maintain. UW-Madison has yet to provide information on the extent of air quality problems on campus, and on efforts to improve air quality and ventilation.

Dane County reached a high COVID Community Level multiple times this summer. When a county is at a high community level, the CDC recommends that everyone wear a mask indoors, regardless of vaccination status. However, use of masks on campus remained relatively rare, both indoors and in groups outdoors. As things stand, with the mask messaging and distribution strategies that the Chancellor intends to maintain into the fall semester, the UW campus community is not even meeting the CDC’s current recommendations.

The CDC recently loosened its COVID guidelines, and the White House is planning to pull back the COVID response even further, all but guaranteeing the deadly fall and winter that the Biden administration predicted back in May. But if we look at how CDC and White House leadership make their own decisions around COVID, we can see that when it comes to protecting themselves and their own families, they go above and beyond the recommendations and tools that they give the public. The CDC is still working remotely. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky and White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish K. Jha both send their children to school in Newton, Massachusetts, where every school in the Newton Public Schools system has had $5 million in ventilation upgrades since the COVID-19 pandemic began . In the White House, people meeting with President Biden test for COVID and wear N95 masks. During his recent infection, the president isolated until testing negative twice.

We need to set the bar high, to protect ourselves and our community. We have more reason than ever to prevent COVID infections. With long COVID, everyone is at risk for devastating outcomes, even those who are young, vaccinated, and healthy—with each reinfection making you more likely to develop long COVID or a post-COVID condition like diabetes. And even more benign COVID infections can be disruptive: to students suffering symptoms and missing classes, and to instructors helping their students to accommodate missing classes, assignments, and energy. As the pool of continued infections leads to new variants with potential for heightened risks, we urge everyone to mitigate as they can.

We would like to express our appreciation and respect for healthcare workers, and our support for UW Nurses, who have been fighting for their right to unionize. We also need to prevent COVID infections in solidarity with them. The COVID Community Levels used in the current CDC guidelines are based on hospitalizations and deaths, not overall infection rates. The “high” level only kicks in after hospitals are already filling up. Over the last two years, countless healthcare workers have left the workforce—whether that’s because they passed away, got long COVID, decided to retire, or otherwise left the field. Those remaining are beyond burned out from relentless demands and brutal, unsafe working conditions. At the same time, as COVID continues, we are contending with monkeypox, polio, and millions of people developing long COVID and new post-COVID health conditions. We need to be doing everything we can to stop COVID infections. The only surefire way to prevent all adverse outcomes from COVID—and lessen the burden on healthcare workers—is to prevent COVID infections.

Nobody wants this. We all want to be able to live our lives without worrying about COVID-19 or monkeypox or polio. In February 2022, CDC Director Walensky said, “The scarlet letter of this pandemic is the mask. It may be painless, it may be easy, but it’s inconvenient, it’s annoying, and it reminds us we’re in the middle of a pandemic .” For the last month, COVID-19 has killed over 400 people per day, taking about as many people per week as were lost on 9/11.

In her August 16 response to our open letter, Chancellor Mnookin said, “We can turn to more stringent requirements if circumstances require.” Are we not already in those circumstances? How many people have to die for our leaders to act? Masks and other precautions might remind us of the pandemic, but that’s because the pandemic is not over. It’s not about feeling safe. It’s about being safe.

As the Chancellor says in her letter, we all have to accept that a pandemic isn’t going to just go away. We can’t just go back to normal. (And we shouldn’t want to; “normal” led to this!) We have to grieve the pre-pandemic world and face this one head-on. We need to upend our society’s assumptions about how we protect each other, if we want to end the current pandemics and prevent future ones.

What can you do? One easy thing: Wear an N95 mask in groups, and talk to your coworkers, friends, and family about wearing masks in groups to continue to protect us all. Anyone in the Madison community should feel empowered to sign our open letter or join our working group. We’re just a bunch of UW workers and wider community members who believe UW-Madison needs to do more to protect folks; we appreciate the availability of vaccines, masks, and tests, but we must do more. We are figuring out how we can keep each other safe while UW leadership catches up. We’re all impacted by UW-Madison’s lack of safety. We’ll all have to research other grassroots mitigations, like air quality and filtration improvements we can make ourselves. We invite you to participate in our DIY air quality campaign or start one at your workplace or school. Stand with UW nurses by sharing and donating to their solidarity fund, and stay tuned for ways to support them further.

We are getting to work, protecting each other as best we can. Will you join us? We’re all in this together.

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