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Republican tries to block UW campuses from mandatory virus testing, vaccination rules

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Pfizer says new data suggests a third dose of its COVID vaccine can strongly increase protection against the delta variant.

A Republican state lawmaker plans to block the University of Wisconsin from instituting COVID-19 testing, masking and vaccination protocols on campuses across the state, a move that comes as health officials sound warnings about the rapidly spreading, highly contagious delta variant.

State Sen. Steve Nass said Wednesday that he will be moving to require the university to get approval from the Legislature before enacting any virus-related regulations. Nass co-chairs the Legislature’s GOP-controlled rules committee, which Nass said will vote remotely Tuesday to block UW virus protocols.

UW System interim President Tommy Thompson, a former Republican governor and U.S. Department of Health Services secretary, did not directly address Nass’s plans in a statement Thursday. However, he said “the biggest threat to in-person classes this fall would be actions that strip the UW System of the tools it has so successfully utilized to date to address outbreaks and reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

Thompson promised the UW System would “take nimble and reasonable steps that enable us to keep our campuses open for the education students need, parents expect, and Wisconsin deserves.”

Thompson has led UW’s response to the pandemic and urged vaccinations, aggressive testing and other measures to slow the spread. He is opposed to mandating vaccinations.

UW-Madison spokesman John Lucas had no comment on the plans.

Democratic state Sen. Kelda Helen Roys, whose district includes the Madison campus, said the move shows Republicans “would like as many people to get sick and die as possible.”

“Honestly, I cannot imagine why Republicans are so hellbent on preventing any safety measures to save people’s lives,” she said. “The majority of people in this state believe the science and they want to live and they want their kids to live. It sends a terrible message that this cohort of Republican senators don’t care about the lives and health of students and people on our UW campuses.”

No university campus is requiring anyone to be vaccinated for COVID-19. But Madison and other campuses are requiring weekly COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated students. Nass said he was also trying to stop any new requirements on mandatory masking on campus.

At UW-Madison, vaccinations are being offered for free but are not required for students, faculty, staff or visitors. As of late June, masks were not required to be worn on campus. However, this week the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended them for indoor areas in communities with high transmission rates. Health officials in Madison echoed that recommendation, even though transmission rates in Madison are currently rated as moderate.

Weekly COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated UW-Madison students living on campus is currently required, but would be blocked under the Nass proposal.

UW Covid Saliva

A UW-Madison worker examines an individual's COVID-19 test sample last winter. 

Nass said some UW chancellors believe they are “not beholden to following state law” and are taking advantage of delta variant “hysteria” to enact new mandates. New COVID-19 cases were seven-times higher on Wednesday than a month ago, leading state health officials to plead for people to get vaccinated to slow the spread and stop an even more deadly variant from developing.

Nass said he would be putting forward a motion declaring that UW policies related to COVID-19 meet the definition of rule, which requires them to be approved by the legislative committee he co-chairs. Once a proposed rule is submitted to the committee, it could suspend it in part or whole, thereby blocking any virus-related mitigation measures across every UW System campus.

Republican Rep. Adam Neylon, who co-chairs the rules committee with Nass, did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

This story will be updated.

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