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‘It’s kind of their moment to shine,’ Doctors say students can stop COVID on campus

mask campus

MADISON (WKOW) -- As campuses across the US face outbreaks of COVID-19 just days after students return to class, doctors in our area are concerned about what could happen when the semester starts in Wisconsin.

Notre Dame is canceling in person classes for two weeks after a spike in cases connected to an off-campus party where people didn't wear masks or stay at a distance.

Meanwhile, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) is going virtual. The campus saw an outbreak of at least 130 cases of COVID-19 after just a week of in-person classes.

"Hopefully all the other universities are paying really close attention now to these early cases to figure out, you know, will our plan work for this, will our plan not work for that, you know, are we going to be at risk or not," said Dr. Jeff Pothof.

Dr. Pothof, chief quality officer for UW Health, says colleges in our area do have solid plans to keep students and staff safe, but it comes down to whether students will be responsible when they return.

"The block in the Jenga puzzle that makes the whole thing collapse is really the piece about personal responsibility," he said. "A university can do everything in their power to make the campus safe., but if the students returning don't do their part to make the campus safe, the whole thing falls down together."

UW System interim president Tommy Thompson says the state's schools will be ready with testing and cleaning procedures as campuses return to some in-person courses.

"If we have a flareup, we have an opportunity to hire nurses and medical technicians to go on campus. We also have a way to be able to put in a whole lab and testing trailer if we need to," Thompson said. "I've done things that have never been done before and we want to make sure that our professors, our instructors, our administrators, our employees and above all our children, our students are safe."

At UNC, cases spread through student housing and off-campus living spaces. Dr. Pothof says facial coverings are even more essential in dorms, along with keeping a distance when possible.

"Things have to be more virtual, remote, they have to wear the masks," Pothof said. "The dorms are a tricky situation because there is a lot of risk there. Now, there's ways to mitigate that risk but even small deviations, and the things that we need to do to mitigate the risk in a congregate living area is going to result in COVID cases that escalate pretty rapidly."

Ultimately, young people will need to realize their role in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

"We're really looking at them, looking at that generation to say, you know, can you step up to the plate and can you do these things that we know are hard for you, but the consequences of not doing it are so vast for so many of us," Pothof told 27 News.

Earlier this summer, Dane County officials had said younger people were having trouble following public health guidelines, leading to a rise in COVID cases.