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UW-EC students uncertain, worried as virus cases tick up

EAU CLAIRE — Rachel Hamele is bored.

The second-year UW-Eau Claire student is one of 181 students quarantined, as of Tuesday, in one of the university’s residence halls.

But Hamele is making the best of it: She’s following along in her classes online, watching “a lot of Netflix” and posting a joking tutorial on washing her laundry with water, soap and her dorm room’s garbage can.

“The only thing I wish I could change is going outside,” Hamele joked over video chat from her dorm room.

Hamele, of Fort Atkinson, may have been exposed to COVID-19 in the bathroom of her residence hall, Towers Hall North, she said. As of Tuesday, Hamele wasn’t experiencing any symptoms of the virus.

In the second week of classes, several UW-Eau Claire students told the Leader-Telegram they were unsure and worried about the fate of in-person classes at UW-Eau Claire.

The university announced Sunday that 69 students had tested positive for the respiratory virus, and 17 of them lived on-campus. Six of the 17 may have interacted with other people in their residence halls, according to the university. So 184 students in those halls, including Hamele, were quarantined.

On Tuesday, another eight students tested positive, said Michael Knuth, UW-Eau Claire associate director of marketing and communications.

Eleven students are in isolation and 181 quarantined as of Tuesday, Knuth said, and 23 rooms in Putnam Hall — the university-designated housing building for COVID-19 quarantine and isolation — are occupied.

Quarantine experience

The university alerted Hamele to the possible exposure with an email on Sunday, she said, and her wing in Towers Hall North began their two-week quarantine.

Students in quarantine “may have had contact” with someone who later tested positive for COVID-19, the university has said. Isolation is a different situation, aimed at students who are symptomatic and waiting for test results, or who have already tested positive.

While in quarantine, Hamele hasn’t socialized outside her room; students aren’t leaving except to get tested for the virus, to wash dishes or to use the bathroom, Hamele said.

The university is delivering meals and books to students in quarantine and isolation, it said in a news release Sunday. Residential life staffers are checking on students daily, and recording their temperature and symptoms daily on The Blugold Protocol app, said Quincy Chapman, director of Housing and Residence Life, in the news release.

Hamele reached out to professors for directions on handling her classes — which started just last week — but with different professors for each class, she said, it’s been overwhelming.

“In my geography class, half are in-person in Schofield Auditorium, other half are watching online,” Hamele said. “Each class has a different format. It’s crazy to try and understand. It’s gonna take a while.”

As of Tuesday, nearly 1,400 people had signed a student petition on, asking the university to move all fall classes online.

UW-Eau Claire student Maddy Lunde of Stoughton started the petition.

“I started hearing a lot of concern from my fellow students about whether or not the circumstances were safe,” Lunde said Tuesday in a message to the Leader-Telegram.

Lunde began the petition before the university released its reopening plan, the Blugold Flight Plan, in early August.

According to the plan, students must wear masks at all times in classrooms, campus buildings, communal spaces in residence halls and outdoors if they can’t be 6 feet apart from each other. Classrooms were rearranged to maintain 6 feet of space between students, and the university told students to wash their hands frequently and monitor their symptoms daily.

Students also signed the Fly Right Pledge, Knuth said. The university required students to sign the pledge, it said in early August, obligating them to monitor symptoms, follow social distancing guidelines, participate in testing and contact tracing and not attend social gatherings that are larger than buildings’ occupancy limits. If students don’t follow the pledge, according to the pledge document, they can be disciplined by the university, lose access to its online systems or be asked to leave the university altogether.

“We are continuing to encourage physical distancing and the wearing of masks on campus and in the community, and we want to thank all the students who have responded positively to our Blugold Flight Plan,” Knuth said in an email. “We are keeping our classrooms and residence halls on campus clean and safe, and we begin extensive antigen testing for thousands of students on campus this week.”

Lunde said she’s still worried about outbreaks on campus.

“I honestly have no issue with having to social distance, wear a mask at all times, and not engage in behavior like parties or large gatherings,” she said of the plan. “My main issue lies with the fact that there could be an outbreak even if all students were as careful as possible, and it’s almost as if the university is taking no responsibility for bringing us back during a high chance of said outbreak.”

The university has said it plans to publish a public dashboard this week, which is slated to include the number of students who have tested positive on campus and the total number of students tested.

Students uncertain

Students said they’re bracing for a semester of quarantine alerts and uncertainty.

“I was seriously hoping for in person classes this semester because last semester was awful,” said UW-Eau Claire junior Sarah Schumacher of Two Rivers, who lives off-campus. “But I don’t think it’s going to last, because students just aren’t going to follow the rules.”

The university decided to have in-person, online and hybrid classes this semester, and a decision to move all classes online “would be made by the university with the support of the UW System,” Knuth said Tuesday, noting that the university is working with the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

Hamele said she’s preparing for long stays in her dorm room for the rest of the semester. Her family is planning to schedule grocery deliveries to her room so she has more food options.

Hamele said she’s undecided if she believes the university should move all its fall classes online versus keeping face-to-face classes open. Her reasons: More students and staffers would stay employed and professors wouldn’t have to make a painstaking curriculum transition to online, she said.

“I’ve been conflicted, but I understand … some people do need on-campus jobs to sustain themselves, just like I do,” Hamele said. “They’re doing the best they can. This is new for everyone.”

Companies working on vaccines sign pledge to put science above politics

The chief executives of nine drug manufacturers leading the race to produce vaccines against the coronavirus signed a joint pledge Tuesday in an effort to boost public confidence in any vaccines that are ultimately approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or similar agencies around the world.

The companies said they will follow “high ethical standards and sound scientific principles” as they conduct their time-sensitive work against a global pandemic.

“We believe this pledge will help ensure public confidence in the rigorous scientific and regulatory process by which COVID-19 vaccines are evaluated and may ultimately be approved,” the companies said.

Public health officials in the U.S. worry that if many Americans don’t trust the vaccines that become available and decline to get them, it will be harder to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Specifically, the nine firms pledged to:

• Make the safety of people who receive coronavirus vaccines their “top priority.”

• Conduct clinical trials of their experimental vaccines according to “high scientific and ethical standards.”

• Seek regulatory approval for candidate vaccines only after safety and efficacy have been established through Phase 3 clinical trials.

• Produce a range of vaccines to meet the differing needs of people around the world.

The pledge was signed by the chief executives of American drugmakers Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Moderna, Novavax and Pfizer, and European companies AstraZeneca, BioNTech, GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi.

They noted that collectively, their firms have developed more than 70 vaccines against “some of the world’s most complex and deadly public health threats.”

The statement comes amid worries that the FDA will be under political pressure from President Donald Trump to provide emergency use authorization to a vaccine before the tests needed to prove it is safe and effective are finished.

Those concerns were renewed last week after it came to light that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had asked public health departments around the country to prepare to distribute a coronavirus vaccine in a matter of weeks. Plans should be drafted no later than Oct. 1, a date that is in line with the “earliest possible release of COVID-19 vaccine,” according to a four-page memo from Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

In addition, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asked governors to be prepare to distribute a coronavirus vaccine by Nov. 1. That request was first reported by McClatchy.

The presidential election is Nov. 3.

Last week, a trade group representing the pharmaceutical industry issued an open letter calling for the “objective assessment of new data” relating to the vaccines and treatments being developed to counter COVID-19. Public confidence in new products depends on transparency and integrity in the evaluation process, the letter states.

“FDA should maintain its historic independence as the gold-standard international regulatory body, free from external influence,” current and former leaders of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization wrote. “Political considerations should be put aside by Republicans and Democrats alike. Our nation’s leaders should reassure the public that politics will not influence the development and approval of new medicines.”

Pediatrician: Youth sports amid pandemic require balancing risks, rewards

EAU CLAIRE — The debate in the Chippewa Valley over the wisdom of conducting youth and school sports during the COVID-19 pandemic is being repeated across the country.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers, Mayo Clinic pediatrician and pediatric sports medicine specialist David Soma said Tuesday during a Zoom call with reporters.

Making the best decision, Soma said, depends on a number of factors, including the degree of risk in the sport, the level of COVID-19 spread in a community, the presence of high-risk family members in an athlete’s home and the importance of sports participation to a child’s physical, mental and social well-being.

Just because he is a doctor and understands the potential risks of COVID-19 doesn’t mean he believes allowing kids to play sports during the pandemic is a bad idea, as Soma acknowledged he is allowing his own children to participate in athletics and even spent time over the summer coaching a youth baseball team.

“Sports provide immense benefits for our youth, both physically and emotionally, and when we’re playing sports there’s obviously risk of spread of this disease, so when we’re trying to decide how to allow youth to participate in sports we have to weigh the risks versus the benefit of that return and that’s ultimately the million-dollar question,” Soma said.

Sports that easily can allow for social distancing and limited shared equipment are considered low risk for transmission of the virus, while sports that require extended close contact among athletes and shared equipment are deemed higher risk.

Soma listed golf, tennis, cross country and track and field as low-risk sports, while labeling football, wrestling, hockey and basketball as high-risk sports. He mentioned baseball as carrying a moderate risk because it calls for some sharing of equipment and intermittent close contact with other athletes.

Following are edited and condensed answers Soma provided to other questions about youth sports during the pandemic:

For schools and families that permit athletes to return to sports, what steps can reduce the risk of transmitting the coronavirus?

The obvious ones that get a lot of attention are social distancing (maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet between participants), utilization of mask as much as possible as that has been shown to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and then the hand hygiene and wiping down of equipment so making sure the surfaces we are touching are as clean and safe as possible.

We know that when looking at certain sports there are additional rules we may want to consider, for example in baseball don’t spit the seeds or in many other sports avoiding some of the high-fives, knuckles or fist bumps. Those are potential passages of spread and also to do those things you’re getting less than 6 feet apart. So a lot of those potential safety precautions and some slight modifications of rules can improve the safety of youth sports across the country.

How should individual families decide if it’s safe for their child to return to sports?

There are numerous considerations: Does your child or any close contact of that child have any high-risk conditions. There are several of those, but a few to name are obesity, chronic lung disease, chronic heart disease, immunocompromised, sickle cell disease.

In addition to that, you need to look at what are the benefits of your child playing. If your child’s identity and well-being are really benefited by playing sports, you may be willing to take on some additional risk as compared to others.

How would you determine if sports are so important to a child that it’s worth the risk?

Fortunately, children are much more mildly affected than adults, but remember that children do have to go home and be around other people. If they’re going to be around individuals that may be high risk, we need to be mindful of that. It’s not just the child themselves participating ... it’s who do they go home to or who are they going to be in contact with that they could spread it to if they do contract the virus.

When you are determining for your own child whether it’s worthwhile for them to do sports, it really has to be a discussion as a family to determine what are the alternatives. Are there ways for that child to maintain social connectedness and maintain physical activity that would be nearly or equally as satisfying as sports if you’re concerned about it? Or if you think that there is a significant benefit because they do struggle socially, physically or emotionally without the participation in sports, then it may be worth the consideration.

I generally am supportive of youth participating in sports if it can be done with low local disease activity, there’s no significant underlying health conditions and the sporting environment in which they’re playing has done a really nice job of trying to minimize the spread.

Despite safety protocols, do you expect significant outbreaks associated with youth and school sports?

I think that it’s going to be a really interesting observation this fall. We have resumption of school ... and that in combination with the resumption of sports is going to result in an increased number of children in contact with one another ... which potentially could result in increased spread.

However, this is not just as simple as if there’s more spread, we shouldn’t do these things.

Even if we stop sports, many of these kids are going to electively choose, because they identify themselves with sports, by continuing to participate, which could be at a local playground or other areas. So doing it under supervision can sometimes be better than doing it unsupervised.

What kind of screening should accompany the return to youth sports?

When we talk about screening, that is looking for the potential of someone having manifestations or exposure to COVID-19. At the very minimum, it would asking questions: Do you have a fever? Do you have signs of shortness of breath, cough, muscle aches or other signs of symptoms consistent with COVID-19? Also, have you been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19?

If temperature checks are possible, that can also be beneficial. Either or both are great things to do.

What happens if athletes get COVID-19 and want to return to sports?

There needs to special consideration for those that do have COVID-19 and want to return back into sports, that we make sure we do it very carefully, likely recommending they do not return to sports until about 10 to 14 days after the onset of their symptoms, they should be fever-free and they should do it very slowly.

If they have moderate or severe disease or they have underlying health conditions, then they should likely be evaluated by their primary care provider or some specialist like a cardiologist.