ONEONTA — After the State University at Oneonta began fall semester classes August 24, it took just a few days for campus officials to realize they had a small but growing cluster of students infected with the COVID-19 virus.
University officials were quick to suggest the contagion was spread by students who held off-campus parties upon returning to Oneonta. Like all public colleges in New York, the Oneonta had switched to remote classes last March.
But interviews with Otsego County government officials, as well as Oneonta Mayor Gary Herzig and Fred Kowal, the president of the statewide faculty union United University Professionals, reveal strong concerns were being registered about the SUNY Oneonta reopening plan weeks before the outbreak erupted in late August and early this month.
As of Monday, the campus reported a total of 723 students have become infected with the coronavirus since the semester began three weeks ago.
David Bliss, who as chairman of the Otsego County Board of Representatives is the county’s top official, said in the weeks before the campus reopened, he recommended students be tested either just before returning to campus or upon arrival.
He said he made that view known in telephone conference calls in one of the regional “control rooms” set up by the Cuomo administration to encourage dialogue between the state government and local leaders as New York went through the steps of reopening its economy.
Among those participating in the calls, Bliss said, were Roann Destito, a former assemblywoman who now heads one of Cuomo’s state agencies, the Office of General Services, and Samantha Madison, the governor’s Mohawk Valley regional representative.
Meanwhile, there had been direct conversations between Mayor Herzig and SUNY Oneonta President Barbara Jean Morris. Herzig also called for virus tests to be administered to students before classes began, the mayor said.
SUNY Oneonta submitted its reopening plan to administrators at SUNY headquarters in Albany several week before the semester began. But Otsego County officials had not been consulted on the details when that plan was assembled, Bliss said.
“They did not loop in the county, although we had concerns,” Bliss recalled. “And Mayor Herzig was very vocal about it prior to the campus reopening.”
Bliss said the message from the county government to the Cuomo administration was that the state should provide the testing for students.
“Initially, the state was saying the county was going to have to bear the expense for those tests,” he said. “But we said, no, the state should do the testing. The students would be coming in from all over. The majority of them are not county residents.”
Kim MacLeod, a spokeswoman for SUNY Oneonta, said the college’s decision to not require testing of asymptomatic students was “in line with guidance from the (federal) Centers for Disease Control.”
“Students were, however, required to quarantine for 7 days and 14 days prior to coming to campus if they were traveling from a hot state or out of the country,” McLeod added.
The Cuomo administration did not respond to questions relating to the concerns about the campus reopening that were voiced during the regional control room meeting.
Herzig told CNHI he had been advocating for the pre-testing of the local SUNY students since April. In response to the recommendation, he said, Morris indicated her administration believed the college’s plan to use the testing of wastewater as an early warning system, along with the availability of saliva pool testing, if needed, was sufficient.
But Herzig said he questioned that plan because about 3,000 of the approximately 6,000 students enrolled at SUNY Oneonta reside off campus, putting them beyond the reach of the wastewater testing.
As it turned out, he and others noted, the initial cluster of infections was concentrated within the population of students living off campus.
While several SUNY campuses have had COVID-19 clusters over the past few weeks, the Oneonta one is by far the most extensive. It prompted SUNY Acting Chancellor James Malatras to close the campus Aug. 30 for in-person classes for the remainder of the semester. Students in dormitories then moved back to their homes, while classes were switched to online instruction.
Heidi Bond, Otsego County’s public health director, said the massive effort to do contact tracing in the aftermath of more than 700 student infections has forced her department to suspend all of its other programs. They include health checks for new mothers and their babies, lead poisoning prevention, free rabies shots for house pets and radon testing.
Bond estimated it will be another two months before her agency can resume its regular programs given the work necessitated by the COVID outbreak at the campus.
Until that outbreak began, the county had only recorded 117 infections since the pandemic reached the upstate region in March, Bond said.
“We’ve never been in a situation like this before,” she said. “Until this happened, we weren’t having ongoing transmission here (of the COVID-19 virus). We’re not doing any public health work other than this response right now.”
Bond said she is aware of at least one secondary infection, involving an Oneonta student who returned home to Albany County, spreading the virus to a relative.
The infected students all had to be asked a battery of questions about who they have been in contact with the previous two weeks, and when those individuals are tracked down, more questions are asked. Bond said she and her staff — five nurses and an emergency preparedness coordinator — were working 12 hour days during the peak of the infections.
As the campus was being closed, the state sent teams of people to Oneonta to test hundreds of students and others.
Herzig said keeping the virus from spreading from infected students to full-time Oneonta residents has been a “remarkable accomplishment” by city, county and campus officials.
An estimated one half of the SUNY Oneonta students have opted to remain in the community.
“I’ve had communication with many of the students, and this has been a wake-up call for them,” Herzig said. “They are as nervous about this as our year-round residents are.”
Jacob Adler, a SUNY Oneonta art major, had just returned to campus and was residing in the Curtis Hall dormitory when the outbreak reports first surfaced.
He received a coronavirus test but noted he was not informed he had a negative result until he returned to his family’s home in Yorktown Heights on Sept. 5.
Adler said he was disappointed many of his fellow students, even after the outbreak began, were not wearing face masks or had masks on over their chins while walking on campus.
Adler, a 20-year-old senior, said he believes the campus reopening plan put too much faith in the resolve of students to abide by social-distancing and facial-covering guidance.
Noting just five students were suspended for their involvement in parties that violated the guidance, Adler said, “I think the punishments should have been more severe.”
But the spread could have been far more easily contained if the campus administration had a testing mandate in the re-opening plan and was better prepared to deal with the sudden spike in cases, he added.
“Generally, it was the lack of planning on the part of the administration that led to everything spiraling out of control,” Adler said.
MacLeod said the SUNY system worked to protect the local community from the spread and protect students by moving them off campus.
“SUNY also implemented pooled testing and dedicated significant resourcing to flattening the curve on our campus and surrounding communities,” she added.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.