New testing lab, new case tracker aimed at keeping SUNY campuses open this spring

Photo by Douglas Levere, courtesy of SUNY
SUNY Chancellor Malatras, at podium, joins University at Buffalo President Satish Tripathi to announce a new COVID testing lab being opened on campus.

With in-person classes now in full-swing, SUNY has continued to ramp up its practices in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

SUNY Upstate Medical University is building a new lab at the University at Buffalo to increase capacity and speed up analysis of the saliva test developed by SUNY researchers and Quadrant Biosciences, a New York based molecular diagnostics company.

SUNY is requiring increased testing for all students, faculty, and staff on campus at least once a week and the new facility will be able to process 150,000 tests a week, increasing the total number to 350,000 tests per week across the university system, with results being returned to campuses within 24 hours. The lab will be operational by March 1st.

SUNY is investing $120,000 in the expansion by purchasing the equipment to process Upstate Medical’s COVID-19 test at the new lab. Additional funding will be provided by Quadrant Biosciences.

The UB lab will be staffed by Quadrant Biosciences in partnership with SUNY faculty and student medical researcher teams, as the site handles weekly saliva testing for all SUNY campuses in Western New York.

Upstate Medical and Quadrant Biosciences co-developed the Clarifi COVID-19 test, which is accurate for detection of all common strains of the virus, including the United Kingdom variant that has been found in New York and more than half of the states.

The test also detects asymptomatic cases, which is crucial for SUNY campuses to safely reopen, and remain open, this spring.

Food and Drug Administration approval of Upstate’s saliva test allows for additional laboratories to be used for testing analysis.

SUNY also launched an upgraded COVID-19 Tracker dashboard earlier this week. The improvements will allow there to be increased transparency with SUNY’s 64 colleges and campuses. The data is reported by these campuses every 24 hours and uploaded onto the dashboard in real time.

The updated tracker now includes total tests, positives, and positivity rates; a quarantine/isolation space capacity calculator for the SUNY system and for individual campuses; a state-region-county-campus positivity rate comparisons, mapped with filtering capabilities; monthly aggregate testing trends; and historic trends mapped system-wide and by campus.

“Key to our strategy is having robust data to track, isolate, and address cases as they arise, especially as cases remain high in communities outside of our campuses,” Malatras said. “SUNY’s enhanced COVID-19 data dashboard is like a GPS on this virus.”

Recently, Malatras and the SUNY administration increased the testing frequency of all students, faculty and staff returning to campus to at least once a week. All students that are returning must test negative for COVID-19 immediately prior to stepping foot back on campus. This is being done to ensure the safety of those coming back for the spring semester.

The new lab at UB will be able to process 150,000 tests a week which increases the total testing to 350,000 per week across SUNY with results being returned to campuses within 24 hours.

“Today’s announcement is the best of SUNY—an all hand’s on deck approach to collaborate to combat this virus—with Upstate Medical and UB joining forces to expand testing capacity that will help meet the challenge of weekly testing of all students, faculty, and staff on campus during the spring semester,” said Malatras in a press conference January 31 at the University of Buffalo. “We also want to provide our testing outside of our college borders into the broader community, and this expansion will provide additional long-term capacity to do so.”

Both the individual test and the pooled test are done using saliva swabs rather than swabs inserted in a person’s nose. Samples are given to Upstate Medical and combined into a pool, which is tested for COVID-19 virus. A negative test means that all 10-25 people in the group are presumed to be coronavirus-free at the time of testing.

A positive test for the pool requires each individual saliva sample within the pool to be tested again. The rapid retesting does not require people in the positive pool to come back and submit an entirely new sample. This speeds up the process and expands overall capacity.

“Upstate is proud to now be operating a laboratory on the University at Buffalo campus to help process COVID-19 tests from SUNY campuses across the state,” said Upstate Medical University President Dr. Mantosh Dewan. “This collaboration is a wonderful example of how members of the SUNY system can help one another, and we are very pleased to be a part of this important project.”

In accordance with the increased testing, health care students who have volunteered to help with the COVID response will be made available to SUNY campuses to help administer tests. As of now, 2,500 students have signed up to volunteer.

Additional precautions being taken this semester by SUNY include the cancellation of spring break to cut down on student travel; and dorm capacity will continue to be reduced. Instead of a spring break, there will be three separate “Mind, Body and Spirit” days that will serve as wellness days. Those take place on February 23, March 24 and April 15.

Since the 2020-2021 academic year began in August, SUNY has conducted more than 898,000 tests with a 0.52 positive percentage rate.

“The pandemic isn’t over, and we will see cases, but we know what we need to do, and our students have come back ready to do their part to stay safe and continue their studies,” said Malatras.