ONEONTA – One month after a COVID-19 outbreak infected more than 700 students, the first SUNY Oneonta employee has tested positive, Kim MacLeod, Associate Director of Communications, announced this evening.
According to MacLeod, the affected employee was last on campus yesterday and is now isolating at home. Per its Fall 2020 Re-start Plan protocol, the college has performed enhanced cleaning in the affected employee’s workspace and all communal spaces the employee recently occupied.
As a retired SUNY Oneonta professor of biology, I have been following the local and national coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak on the campus. Here are some thoughts on the coverage.
SUNY Oneonta’s planning for reopening for the fall semester began in April with widespread input from all stakeholders on campus. The Local Control Group, which includes representation from the City of
Oneonta and the Otsego County Department of Public Health, also provided input.
At this time there were many questions about COVID-19 testing, including who should be tested, availability of tests, cost of testing, and reliability of testing procedures.
The draft plan for the fall 2020 semester, which did include a statement saying that prior to returning “students must attest to having no COVID-19 symptoms and no known infection” but no mandatory testing, was submitted on June 1 and subsequently approved by SUNY, the state Department of Health, and the State of New York in July.
Sixty other SUNY campuses also had their plans approved requiring no mandatory testing.
As students began returning to colleges and universities around the country, we began to hear of COVID-19 outbreaks on their campuses. Since the coronavirus does not discriminate, all types of schools were affected including public and private, big and small, elite and non-elite.
As the semester began here for SUNY Oneonta, a small group of students, making up less than 1 percent of the SUNY Oneonta student population, held an outdoor gathering off campus.
This led to 672 positive COVID-19 cases since Aug. 24, the disruption of campus life for over 7,000 students, faculty, and staff, and untold loss of revenue for the businesses and restaurants in the City and Town of Oneonta.
One possibility for the rapid spread of infections among this student population, and in other rapid epidemiological events around the country, could be that the coronavirus mutated into a new strain. Epidemiologists are now looking into just such a possibility.
Fortunately, there has been no community spread as reported by the county Department
of Public Health and no deaths. Unfortunately, the reputation and credibility of SUNY Oneonta and its administration has been called into question.
SUNY Oneonta has faced many challenges since its beginnings in 1889 as a State Normal School. I am confident that going forward the college will continue to maintain the quality of education and student life that SUNY Oneonta has become known for.
SUNY Oneonta merits strong support as it faces this newest challenge.
WILLIAM J PIETRAFACE, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus, Biology SUNY Oneonta Oneonta
ONEONTA – Within one week, SUNY Oneonta’s COVID-19 explosion appears to have toppled face-to-face on-campus learning.
“We are going to reassess in two weeks,” said Kim MacLeod, college spokesperson. “But of all the possible outcomes, going fully remote has the biggest potential to be the outcome.”
According to SUNY Oneonta’s figures, 245 students had tested positive as of press time Tuesday evening, Sept. 1, and number were expected to rise over 300 on Wednesday.
Three dorms with 137-student capacity were being prepared for quarantines and isolations, but it was feared that wasn’t enough. More rooms had been rented for that purpose at the Courtyard by Marriott on Southside.
Governor Cuomo’s virus-testing SWAT team was in the city, setting up sites at Foothills, the Armory and St. James Episcopal Church. Testing is 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday-Saturday.
All Greater Oneonta residents are being urged to participate. To make an appointment, call 833-697-8764 (NYSTRNG).
“We are very serious about containing this virus,” said MacLeod.
• “Obviously this came on fast and hard.” BARBARA JEAN MORRIS, SUNY Oneonta president
On Tuesday, Aug. 25, the first two students, living off-campus, tested positive after attending one of – in SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras’ words – “several large parties” blamed on three athletic teams.
“We had a super-spreader event last weekend with three athletic teams who invited first-year students to a party, then those students came back to campus,” SUNY Oneonta president Barbara Jean Morris told the “Oneonta Control Group” – a town-gown assembly – at its first meeting Monday, Aug. 31.
By Sunday, Aug. 30, those cases had topped 105 – up from 14 on Friday, prompting Malatras to move his scheduled Monday meeting up a day, citing the school as the “worst outbreak in the 64 SUNY school system.”
“This is an all-hands-on-deck situation,” he told a press conference on the quad in front of Chase Gym, where undergrads were lined up for testing.
The school ordered 3,000 rapid-tests for staff and students, who could take the test or face suspension. Meanwhile, the three dorms were being evacuated by 5 p.m. Tuesday to house those who tested positive.
It was off-campus students who were being sent to the Marriott or asked to go home.
The county Department of Health is doing a daily video check-in with quarantined students, and Oneonta police are doing random drive-bys to make sure quarantined students are home.
A week after the first two students tested positive, the cases neared 300. “We expect there will be over 300 positive by the end of the week,” said Mayor Gary Herizg, or perhaps as soon as Wednesday.
“We are now asking all students to refrain from interacting with SUNY students.” MARGARET L. DRUGOVICH, Hartwick College president
Meanwhile, at Hartwick College, only two students have tested positive, but President Margaret L. Drugovich Tuesday took classes remote for two weeks as a precautionary measure.
“We want to take every step that we can now to stop possible further spread of the virus,” she wrote to students and staff. “Our campus-based testing protocol (every two weeks until Nov. 20) will continue. If you have any concerns about your health or potential exposure, I encourage you to also take advantage of the rapid-testing sites that have been established by New York State in Oneonta.”
Students were required to show a negative COVID test before they arrived on campus last week, and those who traveled from “high risk” states were still placed in quarantine as a precaution.
But after the SUNY outbreak, Drugovich told the Control Room that 38 students were placed in quarantine after they were found to have had contact with a SUNY Oneonta student.
“We asked students to come forward if they or their roommate had contact,” she said. “And we are now asking all students to refrain from interacting with SUNY students.”
Additionally, 36 other students remain in state-mandated quarantine after coming to campus from “high-risk” states. Three students, Drugovich said, were suspended for throwing a party off-campus.
“They broke the rules of the social contract,” she said. “They have been put on administrative leave and were not allowed to enroll in their fall classes.”
Hartwick students are required to do daily self check-ins and undergo COVID testing every other week, and although 75 percent of classes are held in-person, they are hybrid and socially distanced.
“It’s working very well and it is very reassuring,” said Julian Kovacs, a Hartwick student. “I know that when I leave my dorm, I’m safe and the people around me are safe.”
• “Until we have those results, we don’t know the extent of spread.” MAYOR GARY HERZIG
Since the start of the SUNY outbreak, three people in the Oneonta community have tested positive for COVID-19, according to county Public Health Director Heidi Bond.
Assisting the SWAT team, Bond’s staff will deploy 71 contact tracers and eight case investigators.
“Anyone who thinks they may have had contact or aren’t feeling well, for their health, everyone else’s, get tested,” said Herzig.
More than that, he said, the testing will give the city information on whether or not the outbreak has spread from the college into the community.
“Until we have those results, we don’t know the extent of the spread,” he said. “Right now, we have no reason to believe this has spread. We do believe we have caught this in time. Shutting down the college is
going to allow us to stop the spread, but the widespread testing will allow us to confirm.”
Herzig said he has scheduled his own test.
“If we find there has been very little transmission, we’ll all breathe that sigh of relief and that we can continue to reopen and move forward without concern,” he said. “But if we see there has been spread, we have to work closely with DOH to determine if we have to have restrictions.”
Presently, Cuomo had no plans to visit the college, he did have words for the students who violated the SUNY’s COVID Code of Conduct.
“You wanted to party, now you have to stay in your dorm room,” he said.
And he had a warning for any other college students across the state who might be willing to risk it all for a night on the town. “When you get suspended, you can explain that when you get home,” he said. “You can party with your parents.”
Aug. 21-23 was critical. That was the first weekend back for SUNY Oneonta’s 6,500 students. For Hartwick College 1,200; but, as it turns out, that was less impactful.
For Oneonta Mayor Gary Herzig and Common Council, the focus had been on bars and gatherings on Main Street, but that turned out to be under control.
Yes, there were students there, but the heightened public concern, and tavern keepers’ wariness about losing their licenses, plus state regulations preventing people from actually standing at the bar, avoided the COVID-19 petri dish that downtown might have been.
It turns out, a better focus would have been off-campus festivities – several “large parties,” as SUNY
Chancellor Jim Malatras put it, where a handful of students passed the infection to other students who went back to campus and passed it on to others, 245 as of Tuesday, Sept. 1. Kapow!
In addition to patrolling downtown, city police were supposed to be patrolling for large parties. According to Police Chief Dave Brenner, a cruiser responded to a single party, and issued a noise complaint.
With 20-20 hindsight, there you have it.
On the SUNY campus, the policy was to ask incoming students to self-quarantine for seven days, and those coming from “hot-spot” states to quarantine for 14. Dreamin’, as was underscored by the course of events since then.
In contrast, Hartwick College insisted students get tests in advance to prove they were clean, and tested them again when they arrived on campus, and will continue to do so.
That SUNY Oneonta had to test all its students on an emergency basis AFTER 105 cases erupted on the Saturday of Weekend Two – underscores that Hartwick’s approach was better.
It’s nice, perhaps, that the first default of SUNY Oneonta’s administration was to trust students to be dependable – but we’re in a pandemic, folks. Nice doesn’t do it.
At the time, the SUNY Student Association’s opting out of City Hall’s ban on nighttime buses between the campuses and the downtown seemed like a bad idea. Since, the SA’s contract with Hale
Transportation of Clinton was abruptly cancelled.
On his Sunday, Aug. 30, press conference at SUNY Oneonta, Chancellor Malatras also announced a high-ranking official, Hank Bennett. the SUNY system’s deputy director of operations, has been deployed from Albany to advise the local campus’ administration.
It’s a shame it had to come to that, but there it is.
The good news is, as of this writing, at least, there have been infections, but not all are active. It seems young people are more at-risk than originally thought, but not as much as older citizens.
This may change by the time you read this, but by press time no one had been hospitalized, and it was expected all SUNY students would be tested.
We’ve learned collaboration is better than not, that tough decisions are necessary, that there’s no substitute to dusting ourselves off and moving forward.
After Malatras raised the alarm, Governor Cuomo dispatched a virus-testing SWAT team to the City of the Hills, which set up testing sites Wednesday, Sept. 2, at Foothills, the Oneonta Armory and
St. James Episcopal Church.
For now, in Oneonta, you can get tested; so, get tested. That allows contact tracing, quarantining and, eventually, let’s expect and anticipate, an end to this unhappy episode and a return to whatever the
ONEONTA – Asking for minimum wage, an increase in board compensation and payment when forced to isolate, Resident Assistants at SUNY Oneonta have posted a series of demands on the social media site Instagram.
“We call on SUNY Oneonta’s president , Dr. Barbara Jean Morris, who made $275,000 in 2019, to guarantee fair payment for RAs that work during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the group wrote in a post that went up this morning.
ONEONTA – 68 students tested positive for COVID after SUNY Oneonta received 481 test results from their on-campus screening, bring the total number of students infected to 245, according to a release from the college.
During the Control Room briefing last night, President Barbara Jean Morris said she anticipated a spike, as 2,000 tests were conducted on students on Sunday and Monday.
ONEONTA – With 2,000 COVID-19 tests administered Sunday and today, SUNY Oneonta President Barbara Jean Morris warned the Oneonta Control Room to prepare for a “ramp-up” of positive tests during their first meeting over Zoom this evening.
“Obviously this came on fast and hard,” she said. “We had a super-spreader event last weekend with three athletic teams who invited first-year students to a party, then those students came back to campus.”
ONEONTA – SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras said Governor Cuomo is deploying a COVID-19 testing SWAT team to quell the worst outbreak of the disease in the 64-campus system.
Three sites will be set up by Wednesday, where all students will be required to get tested, and members of the community at large can get tested for free as well. The county Health Department is helping to coordinate the three sites.
“This is an all-hands-on-deck situation,” said Malatras, who moved up a summit with SUNY Oneonta President Barbara Jean Morris and Mayor Gary Herzig from Monday to today after infections rose to 105 cases overnight.
ONEONTA – Following an outbreak that has sickened 20 students on and off campus, SUNY new chancellor, Jim Malatras, has sent resources to pool-test the entire student population at SUNY Oneonta.
“Today is the perfect example of how the entire SUNY community can work together and take aggressive action to control COVID-19,” said Malatras, the president of Empire State College who was promoted to the top SUNY job just a week ago. “We must ramp up testing at SUNY Oneonta immediately, which is why I am sending personnel and resources to quickly pinpoint any other positive cases and isolate those with the coronavirus quickly. “We are using every measure to keep our campuses safe.”