Union, Skidmore colleges see minimal COVID caseloads

Guided by volunteer Renee Legere, right, Union College student Faith Roy swabs the inside of her right nostril as part of a COVID-19 test in the Union Field House Wednesday.
Guided by volunteer Renee Legere, right, Union College student Faith Roy swabs the inside of her right nostril as part of a COVID-19 test in the Union Field House Wednesday.

Union College has not registered a new positive COVID-19 case as part of its daily on-campus testing regime since Sept. 16, and, on Sunday, the college reported both no active cases on campus nor any students nor staff in quarantine.

Skidmore College also reported no new cases in the past week. The campuses’ positive outlooks come as the colleges shift their focus from welcoming students back to campus to regular surveillance and testing while bracing for the complications of colder weather and flu season.

The schools, both of which are working with the Broad Institute to conduct regular testing of students and staff on campus, have both conducted thousands of tests in the past month, finding a small handful of cases.

Union College conducted over 6,900 tests as of Sunday, returning eight positive cases — or about 0.12 percent — according to the publicly-available data posted on the college website. Skidmore conducted even more tests since last month, over 16,000, with just four positive cases — or about 0.025 percent.

While the low numbers are encouraging, they also reflect the special circumstances — widespread testing, lower enrollment and greater on-campus residency — that enable small, private colleges to manage potential infection outbreaks more effectively than their public counterparts in the SUNY system of campuses across the state.

The University at Albany, by comparison, found 17 new cases in the last week and has registered a total of 69 positive tests out of 4,900 administered so far this school year — or a positive percentage of 1.4 percent. (Since Union and Skidmore conduct more regular testing of every student, the disparate positive rates in part reflect different testing protocols.)

SUNY system officials and campus leaders have implored students to limit contacts and abide by health precautions put in place on campuses, suspending students who refuse to comply.

Union College President David Harris said what active cases have been identified through on-campus testing were largely among students arriving to campus to start the school year and that few have fueled new infections.

“The key for me is not just the number of cases, but it’s also the fact you have seen very few people in quarantine,” Harris said in an interview last week. “The vast majority of those positives were positive upon arrival as opposed to significant community spread.”

At Union, students received a weekly testing appointment as part of the class schedule and all faculty and staff who come to campus are also regularly tested.

“Monday at 3, that’s where I’ll be,” Harris said of his regular testing time-slot. “It takes no more than five minutes: you’re in, you’re out and it’s painless.”

The regular surveillance testing will enable college officials to spot any emerging uptick in cases or clusters that may arise; Harris said its unlikely for the virus to spread among asymptomatic students for long before the staggered testing regime would reveal the rising problem.

“The chance for that is very small, because every week they are getting tested,” Harris said of asymptomatic students seeding problems on campus.

Harris — who noted a small number of students have faced disciplinary action this school year for not following health precautions — credited most students with behaving responsibly and helping the college keep a handle on the virus. He said he often sees students wearing masks when walking alone across campus, even though they are not required to do so. He said it will be important for students and staff keep focused on following requirements so the minimal — or nonexistent — case load is not allowed to drive a back-step in compliance with safety measures.

“The students are driving it,” Harris said. “When I talk to students, the last thing they want to do is go back home. They’ve had enough of that; they want to be here.”

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