SUNY Oneonta's coronavirus outbreak is the worst in the state's college system, state Chancellor Jim Malatras confirmed Friday, Aug. 29, leading to swift actions at the local and state level.
Since the start of the college's fall season Monday, Aug. 24, at least 29 students have tested positive for the virus, according to a SUNY Oneonta media release Friday evening, leading the state to step in and help city and college officials try to contain the virus.
"This is exactly how it is supposed to work when you feel you have a problem," Malatras told The Daily Star on Friday.
The SUNY system had previously released a plan for pool testing, which was developed at Upstate Medical Center. With the high number of cases reported in Oneonta this week — only city-based SUNY campuses in Buffalo and Binghamton have had anything close in size to the Oneonta outbreak thus far — Malatras said the state responded to rush that plan into place in Oneonta.
Officials from Upstate and from the SUNY Health and Welfare Department will assist SUNY Oneonta officials for a mandatory, rapid pool testing of about 3,000 students over a three-day period, Malatras said. By Monday, when city, college and state system officials meet for a SUNY COVID control room update, the results should indicate how big a problem the Oneonta outbreak is.
According to a media release from the SUNY system, pool testing is saliva-based testing that gets put together in larger groups. The rapid results show a group positive, and everyone in a particular pool is then contacted to isolate and get an individual nasal swab test. Because the saliva test has rapid results and is easier and cheaper to produce than the nasal tests, it enables health officials to identify and react to outbreaks quicker.
SUNY Oneonta officials suspended the activities of at least two sororities late Thursday after outbreaks were tied to rush activities. Malatras praised SUNY Oneonta President Barbara Morris for her decisive actions and said students who break health rules about gatherings are harming all college students. He said the sorority events were not the only gatherings that had caused outbreaks. He also said no outbreaks have been tied to sports or other sanctioned activities. Everything that has led to positive tests has come out of gatherings or other violations of college, state or local pandemic regulations, he said.
"Most of our students are doing the right thing, and we appreciate it," he said. "We know they are here to learn. They are here to study. They are here to graduate and progress. A small minority of students are not just harming themselves with their actions, they could impact the entire student body, most of whom are doing the right things."
Malatras said shutting down all on campus learning and activities and going to remote learning is a possibility. Gov. Andrew Cuomo echoed that sentiment in a media release Thursday, saying if a college has more than 100 students or 5% of its population test positive then it must go to remote learning for a two-week period, while officials reassess the situation.
To deal with the outbreak, SUNY Oneonta has converted two dorms, including 160 rooms, into dedicated quarantine dorms.
Neighbor Hartwick College announced Friday it would tighten up its policies on restricting visitors to its campus. Hartwick students begin class Monday, Aug. 31, and have been moving onto campus under a controlled move-in this week.
According to the media release, Hartwick has not had any students test positive.
In a media release, Oneonta Mayor Gary Herzig praised the state system for its help and rapid response to the problem.
"I am very appreciative of the immediate response and assistance from Chancellor Malatras. I welcome his visit to Oneonta next week and look forward to working with Chancellor Malatras and President Morris in doing whatever it takes to keep our students and permanent residents healthy.
"This should serve as a wakeup call to both young and old on how easily this virus can spread and the need to social distance," he said.