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CDC: UW Madison dorm COVID-19 outbreaks did not spread virus to community

Witte Hall was one of the residence halls on the UW-Madison campus with a quarantine in place...
Witte Hall was one of the residence halls on the UW-Madison campus with a quarantine in place to stop the spread of COVID-19.(WMTV)
Updated: May. 21, 2021 at 8:57 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - University of Wisconsin- Madison’s efforts in controlling a COVID-19 outbreak in two of its residence halls likely helped contain the spread of it, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found Friday.

UW Madison noted the outbreak, which was due to a high number of undergraduate residents of the Witte and Sellery halls having COVID-19 at the start of the fall 2020 semester, did not appear to transmit the virus to the rest of the community.

Researchers found most of the new circulating COVID-19 cases in Dane County after the outbreak were not affiliated with viruses circulating in Witte and Sellery halls.

The outbreak went from Sept. 8-22, 2020 and UW Madison explained students in those dorms quarantined for two weeks, all in-person classes and social activities were canceled, plus the university performed mass COVID-19 testing among its students.

Public Health Madison and Dane County also mandated testing and quarantine for 26 fraternity and sorority houses.

Researchers took positive COVID-19 samples from the students and performed genome sequencing on these tests in order to compare the samples to others in the community. Data from students who lived in either Witte or Sellery was compared to virus samples from 875 patients at University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics from Sept. 1, 2020, to Jan. 1.

Researchers report the community samples represented only 3% of the positive COVID-19 cases in Dane County at that time.

Study co-author and UW Madison cellular and molecular pathology graduate student Gage Moreno said things could have gone much differently with the outbreak levels.

“I think I really expected there just to be continued transmission of these variants, because that’s kind of what we’ve all been trained to expect in this pandemic,” Moreno says. “But it was a really pleasant surprise to see that the quarantining of the dorms worked...there was obviously a massive fire in the dorms and the quarantine was like the extinguisher around the edges.”

The study also found that eight in 10 students and employees who tested positive from Aug. 1, 2020 and Oct. 31, 2020 experienced symptoms.

Dustin Currie, lead author of the study and a CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service Officer, said the partnership between the CDC and UW Madison was “one of the most comprehensive partnerships that we had with universities in fall 2020, just because of the breadth of the work we did with the university.”

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