Gary Herzig: Outbreak shows success against COVID can be precarious

Gary Herzig From the Mayor

After a very difficult six months, we thought we were beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

It turned out, as they say, to be an oncoming train. If there is one thing, however, that we in the City of the Hills know a thing or two about — it is trains. Working together, we will surely derail this train.

This should not have happened, and there will be ample opportunity in the days ahead for us to analyze what could have, and should have, been done differently to prevent the current outbreak of COVID-19 among the students of SUNY Oneonta. Was the outbreak due to the unfortunate presence of a “superspreader,” as suggested by President Barbara Morris, or the result of inadequate planning?

The time to seek answers will come. Now is not that time. Now is the time for all of us to come together to stop this outbreak in its tracks and to get the city of Oneonta’s reopening plan back on track. Doing so will require all  — city officials, college administrators, business owners, citizens and the students residing with us — to work in unison as one community. The people of Oneonta are resilient, innovative and determined. Our spirit of Survive, then Thrive has worked well for us during the past six months. It will continue to do so.

With more than 500 SUNY Oneonta students infected with the virus, our focus now is on isolating this outbreak and protecting public health. While not our primary focus this week, the economic impact of the campus shutdown is real and is significant. We will have to come together, as we have during the past six months, to support our local businesses.

It is disheartening to see this setback occur despite our proactive approach in curtailing evening bus service from the campus; attempting to send direct messaging to our incoming students; establishing a Control Group of college students, administrators, city officials, and residents; while also implementing a public health hotline.

We are not yet out of the woods but we do have reason to believe that our swift actions have caught this outbreak before it could spread from the student community to the general community. The free rapid testing sites — quickly established with the support of the state Department of Health, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and the Bassett Healthcare network — allowed us to test thousands of local residents. The preliminary results show no infection found among people above the age of 24. The reassurance provided by these results is further strengthened by the testing of all SUNY Oneonta staff and faculty which showed no positive cases.

Continued surveillance will be enhanced thanks to the forward thinking of our city engineer, Greg Mattice, and our city health officer, Dr. Diane Georgeson. They led the way by partnering with Syracuse University and Upstate Medical Center in adopting the newest technology in testing the wastewater entering our treatment plant for COVID-19. Initial tests in August showed no presence while on Sept. 1, a high concentration of COVID-19 appeared. As we continue to test, the trend — up or down — will help to inform us on how we are doing.

In addition, Gov. Cuomo and the state Department of Health have supported my requests to continue to make free rapid testing available to the people of Oneonta. We will work closely with our county Department of Health and Bassett Healthcare to determine how to best to make these tests available.

Finally, many college students will continue to be part of our community as we go forward. I have had the opportunity to talk with many of our students, both on and off campus. The overwhelming majority have acted as responsible citizens and are just as angry and hurt by what has taken place as the rest of us. Many fought back tears when they spoke with me about being seen by the community as the ones who caused this.

This is a time to listen to the words of our youngest county representative, Clark Oliver, who reminded us by saying: “students are not a monolith." None of us would want to be stereotyped and pre-judged by the actions of others of a similar age or any other demographic classification.

We will overcome this latest challenge by working together. We will also come down hard on those who act irresponsibly, whether they are young or old.

Gary Herzig is the mayor of the city of Oneonta. He can be contacted at 


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