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SUNY chancellor: COVID testing will be 'ongoing strategy for some time,' even after vaccine approved

The SUNY chancellor speaking in Binghamton in September.

James Malatras says he is "on a good path of getting a lot of good things done," but he gives himself a grade of "Incomplete" as he approaches the end of his first semester as SUNY chancellor.

Speaking with public radio in Albany Thursday, Malatras admitted there were some "early issues" managing COVID this fall, but he worked with faculty and students to come up with "uniform standards" to better manage cases of the virus.

"I know Thanksgiving, for instance, was really tough for many students," Malatras said. "I mean, some of our students didn't go home, right. They were on campus because they either contracted the virus and they had no place to go or given the economic issues out there right now, without a dormitory, a roof over their head, they really wouldn't have a place to live. So we try to get back by doing meals and things for them."

Malatras said nearly 600,000 SUNY students, faculty and staff have been tested over the course of the semester. For Thanksgiving alone, it was 153,000, with 0.6% -- or several hundred people -- coming back positive. The chancellor said he was pleased the numbers were "very low."

He said even after a vaccine is approved, "testing is going to be an ongoing strategy for some time" across the university system, as it will take "some time" for people to get vaccinated.

"Now it's bearing fruit," Malatras said. "We came up with the number one test in the world, the number one saliva test in the world. We're leading the state-of-the-art vaccination program working with Pfizer. So right here, I mean, it is a proud moment for public higher education, a chancellor who just came in new, to see all of the great capacity that we have to be an integral part of our society."

Malatras also talked about how COVID will impact Excelsior Scholarships next year, as well as the new free online training program announced by SUNY.

"Which will provide free training and certifications to New Yorkers who want to get their foot into higher education," he said. "So especially people who aren't necessarily college ready, we're offering college preparation courses for free. And then we're providing certifications in areas for free to New Yorkers in critical need areas now, like pharmacy or home health aides and other areas, to get them excited about the potential of a new career. "You've done well? You're now automatically admitted to any of our 30 community colleges or Empire State College."

Malatras was also asked about possible budget cuts, as COVID continues to drain state resources. The chancellor gavce the example of "do away with private leases" in order to focus on the "core academic mission."

"This fall, we expanded mental health services to every one of our students on campus because they needed it in this COVID environment, they needed it being isolated," he said. "So you have to prioritize your budget around those things that are the most important. So we're going to take a deep look into all of those areas to see where we can reduce our costs, protect our core academic programming, because ultimately, it's about our students."

CORRECTED Dec. 11 @ 2:47 p.m.: An earlier version of this story mistated SUNY's pre-Thanksgiving testing positivity rate as 6% instead of 0.6%.

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