Tommy Thompson used relationships with CDC to pilot COVID testing
Editor’s note: This is the second chapter of a 5-part series in which former University of Wisconsin System President Tommy Thompson and Vice President Jim Langdon reflect on their experience guiding the system though the COVID-19 pandemic. After making a controversial decision to return to in-person classes in the fall of 2020, they discuss the innovative testing program that helped limit the spread of COVID at colleges and the communities they serve.
A new academic year produces its own kind of excitement on college campuses. Upperclassmen return with a sense of familiarity and confidence that eluded them as freshmen. Freshmen arrive with enthusiasm or apprehension or both as they escape their parents’ shadow. Faculty and staff are reenergized following summer breaks.
Students forced out of dormitories and classrooms six months earlier reconnected with masked classmates and professors in unfamiliar environments. Over the summer, UW facility directors reconfigured building traffic patterns to specify where and sometimes in which directions people could walk. They also installed new equipment including hand sanitizer dispensers and plexiglass dividers to stop the transmission of virus-carrying droplets. And signs were everywhere. Wash your hands frequently. Keep six feet apart. Check your symptoms. Stay home if sick. Cover your cough and sneeze.
UW System helped pioneer new COVID-19 testing regimen
At the pandemic’s outset, PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests required administration by a trained health care professional and up to three days for results. In July 2020, CDC Director Robert Redfield and President Thompson discussed another solution. Redfield suggested using rapid antigen tests which could produce results in 15 minutes and were easier to administer. A positive antigen test, he said, could be followed by a PCR test to confirm an infection, and a person with a negative antigen test could go about their lives without isolating for 72 hours awaiting test results.
President Thompson requested CDC’s assistance to set up UW testing sites for the fall 2020 semester including surge testing for the public. Redfield agreed and thus began a partnership that supplied federal testing supplies and services on UW campuses for the next year. Tens of millions of dollars of services through the federal Increased Community Access to Testing program would eventually provide over half a million tests for students, faculty, staff and the public at UW campuses.