Wisconsin counties and colleges

UW-Madison and UW-La Crosse have both recently moved classes fully online to respond to their Covid outbreaks. A recent Journal Sentinel story on La Crosse also noted that

Whitewater, Madison, La Crosse, Platteville, Eau Claire, Stevens Point and Green Bay are in the top 20 metro areas where new cases are rising the fastest in the last week, on a population-adjusted basis. All seven of those Wisconsin cities are home to UW campuses, where classes for the fall semester started recently.

So let’s look at Wisconsin colleges in more detail. This is a table of the 10 Wisconsin colleges with the most students, excluding technical colleges. Data is from Wikipedia’s List of colleges and universities in Wisconsin. The enrollment figures there are 10 years old, but that’s good enough to give us a general idea.

College Students County
UW-Madison 40K Dane
UW-Milwaukee 30K Milwaukee
UW-Oshkosh 14K Winnebago
Marquette 12K Milwaukee
UW-Whitewater 12K Walworth
UW-Eau Claire 11K Eau Claire
UW-La Crosse 10K La Crosse
UW-Stout 9K Dunn
UW-Platteville 8K Grant

Here is a screenshot of the Journal Sentinel’s county case map for the last seven days (retrieved 13-Sept-2020 afternoon). Darker blue means more cases per person. I overlaid the locations of these 10 colleges.

County case map with college locations

6 out of these 10 - Madison (Dane county), Whitewater (Walworth), Eau Claire, La Crosse, Stevens Point (Portage), and Platteville (Grant) - are in counties with high and quickly rising case counts. It seems likely they’re being driven by the colleges.

Cases and positive rates for Dane, La Crosse, Eau Claire, Walworth, Portage, Grant

Oshkosh (Winnebago) and Stout (Dunn) have lower case rates, but their curves are also increasing. (Dane county is included below to compare the scale of cases.) And then UWM and Marquette are in Milwaukee, which has recently been stable. In addition, even though those schools are big, so is Milwaukee so probably we would need a more detailed look than the county level.

Cases and positive rates for Winnebago, Dunn, Milwaukee, Dane

As the quote above from Journal Sentinel story notes, Green Bay in Brown County is also seeing a large increase right now. UW-Green Bay falls just outside the top 10 schools. I would be more skeptical that that college is really driving the increase there though, since it’s a large county and a smaller school. And clearly college outbreaks are not the only dynamic going on in Wisconsin right now - there’s activity all along the I-41 corridor between Milwaukee and Green Bay, and something going on in those two counties on the Upper Peninsula border.

But the map shows that many counties with the largest recent case loads map to the largest colleges. The college outbreak story is not just about UW-Madison (though absolute numbers are the worst there), but is happening in many colleges across the state.

An interesting follow-up question is what will happen at UW-Milwaukee and Marquette. So far it seems that nothing major is happening, but how long will that last? Perhaps Milwaukee being relatively hard-hit earlier will make us more resistant - from some combination of taking precautions more seriously and a certain level of population immunity - or perhaps not. We’ll probably see this week.