UW-Madison announced Friday that it is watching for the new variant of the COVID-19 virus that originated in the United Kingdom after the Wisconsin Department of Health Services announced that strain had been found in Wisconsin last month.
No variants of the COVID-19 virus have been found in Madison or the UW-Madison community yet — and the current seven day positivity rate is just 0.5 percent on campus — but officials say recent outbreaks at the University of Michigan and in the state of Minnesota are reason for concern.
“I’m very concerned [about the new COVID-19 strain], everybody should be,” interim UW System President Tommy Thompson said in an interview with UpFront. “Viruses don’t remain static, they are always evolving, and this virus has proven to be no different.”
The strain from the United Kingdom, named B.1.1.7, is believed to spread more rapidly and easily than the original strain, SARS-CoV-2, according to Wisconsin health experts. However, researchers say there is no evidence that the new strain causes more severe illness or an increased risk of death.
“We already know that COVID-19 is easily transmitted through respiratory droplets, and with this new variant appearing to be even more infectious, taking preventative measures like wearing a mask and physically distancing are even more important,” DHS Secretary Andrea Palm said in a statement.
While UW-Madison has recently ramped up its testing operations — nearly quadrupling the number of tests given per day — Thompson said that getting people vaccinated will be the only thing that can truly stop the spread.
“It’s important to get the vaccine out there before [the virus] hits a groundswell and infects even more people,” he said. “It’s what testing is all about, and it’s what vaccines are all about.”
Thompson said the university is currently following state guidelines for eligible vaccinations, but said they are ready to start vaccinating on a wider scale as soon as more vaccines are available.
“[The university is] just waiting for the vaccine, and the state is too, I’m not criticizing anybody,” Thompson said. “I have 26 campuses, I have nursing students and I have pharmaceutical students all ready to start vaccinating — the truth of the matter is we’re just waiting.”
Despite UW System’s readiness to vaccinate people, shortages of the vaccine have been well documented worldwide, currently all 50 states are currently reporting vaccine shortages. However, President Biden ordered 200 million doses of the vaccine last week in an effort to start a stockpile to give to states — vaccines which could eventually make their way to Madison.