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On SUNY campuses, pre-Thanksgiving COVID-19 testing is a team effort

From Buffalo to Stony Brook and New Paltz to Plattsburgh, the State University of New York system has spent the last 10 days before Thanksgiving testing all students using any on-campus facilities this semester for COVID-19. WBFO’s Kyle Mackie reports on the all-hands-on-deck effort aimed at controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus this holiday season.

Tom Koller spent a recent Monday afternoon where you might expect to find the interim athletics director at SUNY Buffalo State: in the campus’s 3,500-seat Sports Arena. But Koller was doing something a little outside the bounds of his normal job description.

“Bring your mask down for me, and with that, take the swab, put it inside your mouth and rub the inside of your cheek 10 times,” Koller said, walking a student through how to self-administer a COVID-19 saliva test. “There you go!”

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Emanuel Hartenstein, a freshman at SUNY Buffalo State, completes a self-administered COVID-19 saliva test on Monday, Nov. 16.

Koller said he’s one of about 25 Buffalo State athletics employees who voluntarily shifted to COVID-19 testing duties after SUNY announced that all students would need to receive a negative test result within 10 days of leaving campus before Thanksgiving break.

“It’s been fantastic. You know, we have to test thousands of students and everybody’s on board,” Koller said. “It gets me out [from] in front of a computer and I get to talk with the kids, too, and wish them a happy holiday.”

Buffalo State had to test about 4,200 students before closing for Thanksgiving—about 400 students per day—according to Timothy Gordon, vice president for student affairs. The campus set up three testing sites and required about 60 volunteers to ensure that each shift ran smoothly. Anyone who works on campus could volunteer at Buffalo State, but some schools like SUNY Geneseo and Monroe Community College also relied on student volunteers.

Overall, SUNY expects to test about 140,000 students across its statewide network of 64 colleges, community colleges and universities—plus most faculty and staff.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Students at Niagara County Community College line up for their COVID-19 test appointments outside a repurposed gallery space in the campus Learning Commons on Tuesday, Nov. 17.

“The logistics are a monster,” said Wayne Lynch, vice president of administration at Niagara County Community College (NCCC). “From ordering the testing supply to identifying how many tests you need, to scheduling the tests with students, faculty and our staff members to get them in there to be tested, to sending out the tests and awaiting the results, to communicating the results should they come back with an unfortunate positive result—all of that has become a daily part of life and a significant amount of our resources that we utilize here at the college.”

Despite the massive effort required, Lynch said the mandatory testing is a necessary precaution.

“I think this is one more example of SUNY taking this so seriously that they’re actually providing not just the guidance but also the support for the individual campuses to say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna test everyone to make sure as you leave this campus, we’re not spreading the disease further into your home community.’”

NCCC, Buffalo State and most of the other SUNY schools are using a pooled surveillance testing method that was developed by SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, according to SUNY Press Secretary Holly Liapis. Each test costs about $15, considerably less a nasal swab diagnostic test, and SUNY is helping cover some of the costs for individual campuses, as well as providing testing materials from SUNY Upstate. The testing is free for both students and SUNY employees.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Jeffrey Hammer combines a pool of COVID-19 saliva tests in the SUNY Buffalo State Sports Arena on Monday, Nov. 16.

“This is a cost-saving measure,” said Jeffrey Hammer, director of environmental health and safety at Buffalo State, of the pooled testing method. “We can test several folks at once and if that pool comes back negative, then we’ve saved the costs of 12 individual tests. But if a pool does come back positive, then we go back and we test each individual tube to find out who the positive individual was.”

Hammer added that he normally works in a lab, but, like Koller, he took on a different role for the campus-wide testing effort. Suited up in an N95 respirator face mask, lab coat and face shield, he’s been helping combine pool samples and package them up for transport to SUNY Upstate, where results are processed within 24 to 36 hours. If a student tests positive, they’re required to quarantine either on campus or wherever they live off campus in accordance with county health department guidelines.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Hossein Dianat, a graduate student at SUNY Buffalo State, said he might go to New York City for a small Friendsgiving this holiday.

“It’s like a good thing, because the people, they have to go back home. They’re going back to see their families,” said Hossein Dianat, a first-year graduate student studying biology at Buffalo State, shortly after his test. “A lot of the families, they’re like at-risk people, you know?”

Dianat said he might go to New York City for a small Friendsgiving but that he won’t be seeing family for the holiday. Ava Labella, a Buffalo State junior studying urban planning, said she will be but that she thinks the test will help make it safer.

“My family’s being very precautions, so our plan right now is just to have a small Thanksgiving and actually in our garage,” Labella said. “We’re going to have the garage door open with heaters, so, yeah, we’re going the full nine yards with it and being very safe with masks and everything.”

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Ava Labella, a junior at SUNY Buffalo State, said she plans to have a small Thanksgiving meal with her family in their garage.

The Labella’s plan is pretty close to what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for in-person gatherings this holiday, but the agency told Americans last week that the safest way to celebrate with people from other households is virtually. Public health officials are also urging people not to rely on one negative test result to decide it’s safe to gather, because that only means an individual was likely not infected at the time they took the test.

Of course, many Americans still aren’t heeding the CDC’s warnings even as the U.S. continues to break new records for the daily number of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

“Life is gonna happen and we just need to keep living, and I think that in order to do that we need to be with our family and our friends,” said Rebekah Thompson, a final-year business student at NCCC. Thompson said her family will definitely be together for Thanksgiving and that they don’t believe in being afraid of a virus.

“I’m not afraid of death. I trust in the Lord and I believe that I have a home in heaven, so I have no fear of death, and my family does not fear death for the same reason,” she said. “I want to share that with others and I can’t do that if I’m stuck in my home.”

Thompson also said she felt like the SUNY-mandated COVID-19 test was a violation of her privacy. Lynch, the NCCC administrator, said the college has received very little pushback from students overall. SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras also dismissed what he described as false claims by “a handful of people” who have criticized the policy in an op-ed for the New York Daily News last week.

As of Sunday, SUNY has administered a total of 524,131 COVID-19 tests across the state this semester with an overall positivity rate of 0.55%, according to the SUNY COVID-19 Case Tracker. The rolling seven-day positivity rate heading into the week of Thanksgiving is 0.56%.

SUNY is also already planning for its next round of mandatory testing at the start of the spring semester. In-person classes won’t start again until Feb. 1, and students will be asked to quarantine for seven days before returning to campus.

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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