NBC15 Investigates: UW Madison COVID-19 dashboard gets a B+ grade in transparency

A Yale doctor created a website, rating large universities' dashboards across the nation.
Published: Sep. 17, 2020 at 6:42 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - For many UW Madison students and parents, the COVID-19 dashboard is their main source for information.

“It is far from a Freshman year to go there and be hunkered down in your dorms,” said UW Madison parent, Laurie Frumiento.

Frumiento, whose daughter is a freshman, lives in Maine. She said she is doing the best she can to keep up with what is going on at the campus from across the country. One of the ways she does that is through the dashboard.

“It’s one of those things where you don’t really know the right answer. Is the right answer to stay home, is the right answer to go?” she said.

Ajay Sethi, a UW Madison associate professor in population sciences who works on the dashboard, said while universities do not have to report the information, they know it is important to do so.

“Dashboards are common, and I think transparency is paramount right now during our pandemic," he said.

NBC15′s national investigative team, InvestigateTV, poured over more than 100 COVID-19 dashboard websites from large universities across the country to see what information is shared and how.

From displaying total positive and negative cases, to reporting isolated and quarantined students, the UW checked almost every box InvestigateTV looked into for transparency.

“I think it is important that the campus and broader communities have a centralized place to go and find out more about COVID-19, the cases on campus and also the universities response," Sethi said.

However, UW’s dashboard does not include active and recovered cases. Sethi explained they can only track data to a certain point.

“Once a person tests positive for COVID, if their symptoms are going to require a hospitalization for example, we are not privy to that information and it is not sort of under our purview," he said. “Hospitalizations are reported to Public Health Madison Dane Co. and the state. If we learn of a hospitalization and subsequent recovery, it is because the person who tested positive and was hospitalized disclosed that information to us."

Of the 107 schools InvestigateTV looked at, only 25 percent reported active cases. Less than half of the schools report the number of isolated students. UW Madison is one of them.

“For those who are in isolation, by tracking that, that essentially is our active cases," Sethi said.

Dr. Howard Forman from Yale School of Public Health, has tracked national trends and created a website grading universities on their COVID-19 dashboards.

“Many of these universities are like small cities. So you’re dealing in some cases, like Wisconsin, like Ohio State, some Florida schools, some Texas schools, with 30 or 40 thousand people who are living on one campus. And sometimes when you hear about a massive outbreak you may think that it’s widespread across the campus, but it could be that two dormitories are badly infected, and everyone else is actually doing pretty well,” Dr. Forman said.

The UW earned a B+, for things like being east to read and updated daily. UW Madison experts explain they are meeting on a daily basis to find ways to best provide the information.

“Our rating was done on September 1, and actually on September 3 we integrated information from Public Health Madison Dane Co. into our figures,” Sethi said.

Frumiento said she and her daughter rely on the transparency to get through.

“The information that we have been getting, and I think her comfort there she has nothing but faith in the information she is receiving," Frumiento said.

Two schools scored higher than UW. Both the University of Maryland and Michigan received an A-.

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