New testing and reporting procedures aimed at slowing virus spread on SUNY campuses

Photo courtesy of SUNY
SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras tours SUNY Oswego on Wednesday, September 9, 2020, to review the college’s response to an uptick in COVID-19 cases on campus. Malatras and the Governor’s Office this week announced a new testing procedure developed by Up[satet Medical Center and a new reporting protocol for all 64 SUNY schools, both aimed at slowing the spread of the virus on SUNY campuses this fall.
State University of New York Chancellor Jim Malatras visited SUNY Oswego Wednesday to address that campus’s COVID-19 surge with  43 new cases since Monday. SUNY Oswego now has a total of 64 total cases since August. 

After an outbreak at SUNY Oneonta forced the college to go fully remote learning for the remainder of the semester, Malatras wants to expand both testing capacity and student compliance to maintain in-person classes for the SUNY system. 

Malatras took over as SUNY chancellor in August following the unexpected resignation of Kristina Johnson earlier this year. He has made trips to several SUNY campus across the state in recent weeks to monitor COVID clusters and outbreaks and announce new initiatives to stop the spread of the virus on SUNY’s 64 campuses. 

The most drastic measure was closing all in-person learning at SUNY Oneonta for the remainder of the semester. The campus was the first to hit the 100-student threshold that Gov. Cuomo said would be the trigger for closing a campus.  

Malatras said these aggressive measures have been taken in part due to student violations of codes of conduct.

SUNY Oneonta announced a transition to fully remote learning for the rest of the fall semester on Sept. 3 after nearly 400 cases of COVID-19 were reported. As of Sept. 9, SUNY Oneonta has announced 696 total confirmed cases. The initial rise in cases is believed to have stemmed from a group of five individuals who threw parties at the beginning of the school year, violating state-imposed guidelines and restrictions. These students, in addition to three campus organizations, were suspended as a result. 

SUNY administration and Upstate Medical Center have commenced a new testing and tracing processes in an attempt to contain the virus in the state university system. The new rapid screening process – developed at Upstate Medical – can analyze more than 15,000 samples per day at SUNY Upstate’s Neuroscience Research Building.

Not all students were required to take tests previous to attending in-person classes or moving onto SUNY campuses. But as of Sept. 4, about two weeks after most classes have already begun, Malatras announced that all SUNY colleges and universities will be implementing surveillance testing. Such testing was approved by New York State Department of Health which will allow for 10-25 saliva samples to be pooled and run as part of one test.

In a press release on Sept. 4 Malatras said that surveillance testing capabilities in the SUNY system will allow for every student on campus to be tested every two weeks. Surveillance testing can identify asymptomatic carriers that likely would not have otherwise been tested. The increased frequency of tests as well as the expansion of COVID-19 testing machines announced on Wednesday will allow for more students to be tested with more rapid results. 

Malatras said, “Safely reopening colleges by containing COVID-19 so our students can have academic success is our top priority, and by launching immediate surveillance testing on every campus, we are giving ourselves the best shot to identify the presence of this virus before it can spread further across a campus, possibly infecting hundreds of students, and forcing us to roll back the in-person offerings so many of our students find critical.”

As of Aug. 1, all SUNY campuses are required to report information on COVID-19 cases, testing, quarantine and isolation space. The SUNY COVID-19 Case Tracker  provides a centralized location for information updated every 24 hours.

Photo courtesy of SUNY
Chancellor Malatras tours a testing facility at Upstate Medical University on Wednesday, September 9, 2020.

The locations of the 64 SUNY campuses, spread out amongst the state’s cities and rural communities alike, embody the diverse makeup of the state itself. Since 95 percent of New York residents live within 30 miles of a SUNY campus, many residents with varying levels of vulnerability to the virus will be impacted if it is not properly contained.

As mandated by Gov. Cuomo, once a SUNY college has reached 100 confirmed cases, or if the number of cases reaches 5% of the population of the college, they must move to fully remote learning for at least two weeks. SUNY University at Buffalo has announced a total of 151 cases as of Sept. 9. Most SUNY University at Buffalo students are already fully remote and do not count toward Gov. Cuomo’s announced threshold of allowable confirmed cases. Of the total positive cases, 64 were from on-campus employees and students.

In an interview with John King at CNN, Malatras addressed the rising cases of COVID-19 on SUNY campuses. Malatras said, “We have to instill in people that it’s not just your actions. Your actions have consequences on everyone else. It could impact our faculty and get them sick. It can impact the student body population so we’re going to keep reinforcing that message.”

If concern for the greater community is not enough of a deterrent to prevent SUNY students from throwing unsanctioned parties, campuses have begun student suspensions. Some student suspensions announced by Malatras so far include: 13 at SUNY Fredonia, 12 at SUNY Cobleskill, 9 at SUNY Geneseo and 43 students at SUNY Plattsburgh.

Malatras also praised his alma mater, SUNY Albany, for the swift move to suspend four students who violated COVID-19 protocols. Malatras said, “We must continue to do everything we can to contain this rapidly spreading virus while praising the majority of our students who are following the rules and respecting the safety of their campus community.”