ALBANY — University at Albany officials plan to ramp up COVID-19 surveillance testing over the coming weeks in an effort to keep the disease from spreading on campus.
Welcoming incoming State University of New York Chancellor Jim Malatras to campus – a UAlbany graduate and the first SUNY graduate appointed to lead the system – UAlbany officials on Wednesday outlined plans to begin pooled testing in early September, expanding over a few weeks to 5,000 tests per week.
The pool testing, developed and managed by the RNA Institute at UAlbany, will help monitor potential outbreaks in dorms and among all faculty and students who step foot on campus. In pool testing, a group of samples are pooled and if that registers a positive result individuals within that pool are then referred for actual diagnostic testing. The process enables broader and quicker surveillance testing and has started to roll out at other SUNY campuses too.
“This is the first wave of surveillance testing,” said Andrew Berglund, director of the RNA Institute, noting the pool testing at UAlbany would start with about 600 tests the week of Sept. 7 and climb to 5,000 tests a week within the first few weeks of testing. The institute is building 25,000 test kits in the coming days, he said. Students and staff will be able to conduct the simple test themselves, spitting into a tube and dropping it off at locations on campus.
“I would say this is an aggressive approach, because we are surveilling everyone,” Berglund said.
The announcement of the pool testing plan comes a day after UAlbany announced its first positive case and warned that anyone who spent time around the campus’ main fountain Thursday night may have been exposed. Ten students have since been identified for testing, but no new cases have emerged, Albany County Executive Dan McCoy said.
“We all knew it was not a matter of if, it was a matter of when,” UAlbany President Havidán Rodriguez said of the positive tests, highlighting a process he said demonstrated the college’s plans were working. A student came forward about a potential exposure, the student was isolated and tested, any contacts were identified and those people were tested too.
Wednesday at UAlbany, which started classes on campus Monday, was also a homecoming of sorts for Malatras, who has studied and taught at the college over the years. Malatras, who was appointed to the chancellor position last week and formally moves into the role Monday, has been starting to tour SUNY campuses across the state. Over the weekend, he visited SUNY New Paltz and visited SUNY Plattsburgh on Tuesday. He arrived at his alma mater shortly after noon Wednesday; Malatras swapped his SUNY face mask for a UAlbany one and stepped back on the campus where he earned his bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate in political science.
“Hey, Mr. Chancellor, how are you?” Rodriguez said, welcoming his guest with an elbow bump. “I’m delighted to welcome the new SUNY chancellor… it’s great to see what a great education like UAlbany can do.”
“It’s nice to be home,” Malatras said as he addressed reporters and a small crowd of college officials and student leaders in front of the campus fountain.
Malatras highlighted the importance of expanding testing on SUNY campuses and remaining vigilant about the virus even as the state reaches some of its lowest infection rates since the start of the pandemic, noting how quickly it can reemerge if people aren’t careful.
“That is my singular focus: to make sure students across the SUNY system have robust educational opportunities in a safe way,” he said. “We are going to wear our masks and do the right thing.”
Malatras also said he and campus officials will be tough on students who do not comply with campus health protocols and on Wednesday issued a statement supporting the suspension of 43 SUNY Plattsburgh students who attended an unsanctioned party.
He also briefly addressed the controversy that has swirled around his appointment, which came after the SUNY Board of Trustees on Friday agreed to bypass a national search and appoint Malatras. The decision drew criticism from faculty and student leaders as well as state lawmakers in recent days. He said he was just an applicant for the job and had no control over the process, while promising to work with people throughout the SUNY system as he moved forward.”
“I didn’t control the process,” Malatras said. “I’m going to roll up my sleeves, get to work and engage in every facet of SUNY operations.”
A student on hand for the media event pressed Malatras and Rodriguez about whether they would commit to creating an online dashboard for students to track the number of tests and positive cases on campus. Malatras said he planned to push for those types of dashboards at campuses across the SUNY system.
“You are an adult, you are paying tuition, you should have all the information you deserve,” Malatras told the UAlbany student. “I’m going to be very student-centric.”
Rodriguez also highlighted the importance of adhering to health and safety protocols as the school year grinds on, calling on the campus community to do what it takes not only to keep themselves safe but to keep everyone around them safe as well.
“We still have a pandemic, and we need to continue to be proactive and we need to be vigilant,” Rodriguez said. “This is a collaborative effort.”