Downstate cop traces COVID infection to SUCO outbreak

Malatras

ALBANY — Kenneth Vicino says he coughs uncontrollably when he walks up a staircase. He coughs uncontrollably when he talks.

The 53-year-old Long Island police officer said the coughing began earlier this month after he drove his 18-year-old daughter home from SUNY Oneonta as the campus was being shut down due to a rapidly-spreading outbreak of coronavirus cases.

They were in the car together for five hours during the ride home to Hempstead, he said. The daughter wore a mask, he recalled. The next day, she got tested for COVID-19 and the result came back positive.

Within a few days, Ken Vicino said he became sick and arranged to be tested. His result came back positive, as well, he said. He said he is now recuperating from the COVID-19 contagion.

But he said he is angry and disappointed there was no requirement that students who had earlier tested negative at the campus be re-tested before they could be released from quarantine and before returning to their homes.

"They shouldn't have released these kids, No. 1," he said. "No. 2, if they were going to release thousands of kids back to communities, they should have done another test because it takes three or four days after the exposure for you to become positive. They should have at least quick-tested them to see if they had it or not."

About a week before she returned home, he said, his daughter participated in a pool test for coronavirus at the campus, and that showed no sign of the virus in the saliva samples collected from that group of students.

After the result came back a couple of days later, he said, she spent three days in quarantine.

If she was not infected at the time of the pool test, there was ample time for her to become infected by the time of the trip home, Vicino said.

"It was absolutely handled wrong," the father said. "For months, we had been listening to Governor (Andrew) Cuomo talking about the importance of testing, testing testing, and the importance of science, science, science. But when this happened, everything that happened was the exact opposite of what they were telling us for six months."

Vicino said he was treated at a hospital near his home for one day and is now recuperating. His daughter has recovered. He said his wife, an elementary school teacher, had to stay home the first two weeks of the school year due to quarantine rules.

"For a blunder this big to happen this many months into what has been going on is ridiculous," he said.

Vicino said he questions why state officials emphasized the need to follow public health guidance, yet did not adhere to the recommendations of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert.

In a Sept. 2 interview on NBC's "Today' show, Fauci said sending students home after they may have been exposed to virus-infected individuals is "the worst thing you could do."

"When you send them home, particularly when you're dealing with a university where people come from multiple different locations, you could be seeding the different places with infection," Fauci said.

CNHI reported earlier this month SUNY administrators in Albany gave the green light to the Oneonta campus reopening plan, as well as most other SUNY campuses, despite the fact they did not require the pre-testing of students when the semester began.

The head of the United University Professionals (UUP) faculty union, Otsego County Board of Representatives Chairman Dave Bliss and Oneonta Mayor Gary Herzig had all advocated that the reopening plan include a requirement students be tested upon arriving on campus.

Vicino said his family's situation points up flaws in how SUNY responded to the outbreak after it began and raises new questions about the effectiveness of the reopening plan.

Holly Liapis, spokeswoman for the SUNY system, said SUNY's new chancellor, James Malatras, directed students who tested positive for COVID-19 remain at the Oneonta campus until testing showed they were no longer infected.

"The campus had to work with their local health department on how and when other students may leave campus," Liapis said.

She said the reopening plans submitted by SUNY campuses in June complied with federal and state health guidelines.

On Sept. 3, the day he directed the Oneonta campus to transition to online learning for the remainder of the semester, Malatras underscored the need for Oneonta campus administrators to work in concert with health authorities.

"So when we send students home, how we send students home, we will work hand-in-glove with the health departments because we want to make sure we’re protecting the community of Oneonta, which is important to us, but also the communities our students are going back to," Malatras said in a press conference that day.

Fred Kowal, president of UUP, said Malatras had just taken over the SUNY system at the end of August and had to deal with the consequences of inadequate planning for campus reopenings under the leadership of his predecessor, Kristina Johnson.

"During the summer months, there was a vacuum of leadership at SUNY and with that campuses submitted plans that were pretty loose," Kowal said. All of the campuses were notified by a letter from SUNY's leadership their reopening plans were being approved, he noted.

"They all got the same letter, and it was basically, 'Nice job, well done,'" he said.

In contrast, he said, Malatras has become immersed in responding to the contagion and is "trying very hard to get all the campuses in line now" and requiring more surveillance testing at campuses throughout the system.

Vicino said it was clear to him the Oneonta plan was lacking when parents shared their stories on social media about the experiences their students were having with housing and food quality during the quarantine.

"When they first started quarantining them (after the pool testing) they were allowed to go to the dining hall together," he said. "They were giving cold cuts to kids who are vegans. There was no plan."

Bliss said the most fundamental flaw in the Oneonta reopening plan was the lack of a requirement that students be tested upon arrival, a standard used by nearby Hartwick College, which has had no major outbreak among its student population.

Kowal said he believes the rapid involvement by Malatras and local health authorities in the Oneonta situation very likely contained the virus from spreading throughout the Oneonta region.

Meanwhile, SUNY headquarters is not done with monitoring the events and planning at the Oneonta campus.

"We understand the frustration about what occurred at SUNY Oneonta and SUNY Administration is conducting a thorough review of the situation to determine any further corrective action,” Liapis said.

On Wednesday, the Oneonta campus reported the total number of students sickened in the virus outbreak grew to 681, including one new infection that day.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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