Area colleges dodging COVID outbreaks so far

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Nearly a month into the academic year that some feared might not happen at college campuses in Oneida County because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation is so far, so good, with only a relative handful of cases confirmed at any of the campuses.

The area’s largest institution, Utica College, has reported just 10 cases so far among students and one among employees, with one student in isolation with a recent positive test and one in precautionary quarantine. Five students have had cases resolved.

Mohawk Valley Community College, Hamilton College and SUNY Polytechnic Institute’s campus in Marcy have reported only one student case among them, at MVCC.

The local situation is in contrast to that in other parts of the country and nearby, at SUNY-Oneonta, where more than 500 positive tests were received in early September, which led to classes moved online and residence halls closed.

On Friday, the State University of New York at Oswego announced the shift to remote learning beginning Sept. 19 as a proactive measure as it neared the state’s shutdown threshold of 100 COVID-19 cases, college president Deborah Stanley said.

SUNY Oswego had tallied 82 virus cases as of Friday and was projected to reach the 100-case mark on Sept. 25, Stanley wrote in a letter to students and staff and posted on the college’s website. Stanley said the college plans to resume regular classes on Oct. 5. About 8,000 students attend SUNY Oswego.

The threshold to trigger all-online classes was set by Gov. Andrew Cuomo at 100 cases over a two-week period or 5 percent of on-campus, or if the caseload exceeds the institution’s ability to cope.

None of the colleges in Oneida County is close to that.

Mohawk Valley Community College has reported one case, which was a commuter student who had no symptoms but got a positive test at work and reported it to the college health center, according to the college.

At MVCC, all campus visitors, including students, employees, and community members, are screened upon arrival to campus and required to complete a screening questionnaire and temperature check prior to gaining access to any facilities, according to college spokeswoman Katie Voce.

The college tested 164 residence hall students prior to move-in and found no positives. Starting this coming week, Sept. 21, MVCC will require all students in residence halls to perform pooled, or batch, testing biweekly. It will be optional to commuter students and employees.

In Clinton, Hamilton College has reported only one case so far, involving an employee, despite requiring students to be tested twice a week.

SUNY Polytechnic Institute’s Utica campus, actually in Marcy, has reported no confirmed cases, though it does not require ongoing testing, just pre-testing before students returned to campus in August.

At Utica College, the 11 cases represent 0.12% of students, according to the college’s online COVID dashboard.

Everyone at the college gets a notice each morning to take a brief health self-screen that asks if they have COVID symptoms as proscribed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or have been around someone with a confirmed or possible case. The first question is whether the person plans to be on campus that day. But even if the answer is no, each is asked about symptoms.

“We still want to monitor even our off campus commuter population to make sure they are not experiencing symptoms, because if they are, we want someone from our health center to reach out to them,” said Shad Crowe, the college’s vice president for emergency management.

Everyone entering campus must display the results of that day’s screening at the only entrance now open. Students may also have to show it in classrooms.

If a person has symptoms or an exposure, he or she is contacted by the health center for follow-up testing.

In addition every person on campus is pool-tested once a week. They give a saliva sample that is then added to those from about a dozen to 21 other students, faculty and staff, which is then tested at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. Results are available in 24 to 36 hours. A positive in a pool then triggers a rapid-results test from people in that pool at Primary Urgent Care nearby, then follow-up with a rapid antigen test for confirmation.

People confirmed with COVID or those waiting confirmation are quarantined. The college has reserved 65 rooms at Burrstone House, a former residence hall just off campus. People with a positive case have their contacts traced back to 72 hours — beyond the required 48 because that’s the farthest back that viral load is believed strong enough to transmit the infection.

“We’re required to back 48, but we try to go back 72, because we are a very small campus,” Rowe said.

Hamilton College requires COVID-19 testing twice a week for students, and for employees who have close contact on campus with students, and once weekly for other employees who work on campus. Students and employees are to sign up in advance for testing and track symptoms and log results on a mobile app.

Hamilton has conducted nearly 14,500 tests among students and more than 4,800 among employees, according to its online COVID dashboard. The tests are diagnostic tests conducted with a nasal swab, often called a PCR test, for polymerase chain reaction.

The employee who tested positive was not working on campus but came in to be tested, according to the college.

SUNY Poly is taking part in pool testing conducted through the state university system. Through Thursday, it had conducted 1,708 pool, or batch, tests, with no positive tests.

Utica College suspended some students earlier in the semester after an off-campus party where there was no social distancing and mask wearing. They were banned from residence halls and in-person classes.

But most students so far seem to understand what’s at stake, Rowe said. “There’s an inherent desire for everyone that’s here — they either want to be in the classroom, they want to be on campus, they want to be in the residence halls. That’s where the buy in comes from.”

The testing is a significant expense, Rowe acknowledged, but it’s worth it because it’s crucial to keeping the pandemic at bay — which is in turn crucial to letting students know it’s safe to be there pursuing their education. While enrollment is down slightly, the decrease is much less than feared, he said.

Earlier in the year, after colleges shut down in-person teaching as the pandemic spread, many feared students would opt to sit out a term or whole year or forego college completely if instruction were not in-person this fall, depriving many schools of crucial tuition and fee revenue.

“It’s the only way that we can be here and the only way to keep students here and keep them fully engaged and provide them with the best environment to learn. You can’t do that if you’re afraid to get out of your room and go to class.”

In addition, it also helps protect the community, because students, faculty and staff don’t stay on campus, Rowe added.

“We’re planning now for the spring to look a lot like the fall. We’re planning for the unknown and the unknowable,” he said. “We’re hoping that we can return to a closer to normal experience, but we’re certainly planning for all of this to continue into the spring. We have to. There’s no choice.”

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