UAlbany takes ‘strong measures’ after overnight COVID-19 spike

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

“It’s no secret,” Havidán Rodríguez, president of the University of Albany, of the numbers of COVID-19 cases on campus; the state has set up an online tracking system that colleges and universities in the state system must update daily.

ALBANY COUNTY — In less than 48 hours, there has been a spike of 31 cases of COVID-19 among University at Albany students, Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy announced at his Friday morning press briefing.

“We’re at a critical moment here,” he said. “We need people’s help and we need to have these students continue to come forward to identify places they have been.”

Once a college or university reaches 100 cases over a two-week period, classes have to be given entirely remotely, according to an executive order, said Havidán Rodríguez, president of the University of Albany.

“We’re monitoring the data … We hope we do not get there,” he said of having to stop in-person instruction.

“It’s no secret,” Rodríguez, said of the numbers of COVID-19 cases on campus; the state has set up an online tracking system that colleges and universities in the state system must update daily.

“Whether your school stays open or closed depends upon what you do, so please take the importance of this responsibility to heart,” said the county’s health commissioner, Elizabeth Whalen, addressing students.

Whalen explained how her department isolates students who test positive for the disease and traces their contacts, quarantining those who have been in close contact.

“Students are letting us know where you are if you are infected and not following guidance,” she said.

Whalen went on, “This is a disease that has killed nearly 200,000 people in this country and it has not left us yet. So we need to be more vigilant than ever. So, for the other colleges and universities around the area, please take this to heart as well.”

The spike at UAlbany can be traced back to athletes and to off-campus housing in the Pine Hills neighborhood of Albany, McCoy said.

Rodríguez called the 31 recent cases “a very serious development” and went on, “We are taking very strong measures in response.”

Thursday night, he said, 370 saliva samples were collected from student athletes with tests being run on Friday. All athletic activities have been suspended until further notice, Rodríguez said. 

The public university, part of a sprawling state system, has three campuses serving about 18,000 students: an uptown campus in Albany and Guilderland, where free state testing for COVID-19 has been ongoing for months; a downtown campus in Albany; and a health-sciences campus in Rensselaer.

The university has set aside 230 rooms for isolation and quarantine, Rodríguez, and daily health screening continues for all students, faculty, and staff. According to the SUNY COVID-19 Case Tracker, as of Friday evening, 50 of those rooms were in use; the tracker also estimated 40 positive cases in the last 14 days.

Sixteen-thousand COVID-19 kits have been distributed with 98 percent of the students registering for them; the goal is to reach 100 percent, Rodríguez said.

He also said that any student in violation of the university’s code of conduct or of the pledge students signed before coming to the campus will be suspended immediately. “Unfortunately, we have already suspended six students,” said Rodríguez. Another five students have been removed from student housing, and said, and another group of students is under investigation.

Rodríguez said earlier that this semester 58 percent of students are learning online, 36 percent attend in-person classes, and the remaining courses are a hybrid of the two approaches.

Half of the staff is working on campus, and the other half is working remotely from their homes, he said; 37 percent of the residence halls are occupied.

McCoy on Friday described the university as “a small city,” saying that, counting students, faculty, and staff, it is about the same size as the town of Guilderland, which has a population of about 35,000, and is larger than many other municipalities in the county.

“We need students’ buy-in,” said McCoy 

He also said, “Kids are savvy,” perhaps going to urgent-care centers for testing rather than going to the free state testing site on the uptown UAlbany campus.

He urged, “You don’t need signs or symptoms to get tested.” McCoy also said, “There’s no excuse to the students that are being crafty.” Some, he surmised, are not being truthful because “they want to protect their friends.”


Tracking Covid-19

On Sunday, Governor AndrewCuomo and Jim Malatras, the new chancellor of the state university system, announced the launch of a COVID-19 case tracker dashboard for SUNY’s 64 colleges and universities.

The centralized dashboard is to provide real time, up-to-date information on COVID-19 cases, testing, and quarantine and isolation space availability across the system to more efficiently monitor, respond to, and contain the virus.

“Nationwide, 108 colleges have already reported more than 100 cases,” Cuomo told the press on Tuesday. “In New York, we have a problem, SUNY Oneonta, Cornell, Buffalo, Hofstra, Oswego, Colgate, Fredonia. That’s all across the state ... it goes from Long Island all through upstate. So this is going to be a problem. I am telling you that. One of the lessons we learned is just anticipate what’s happening and be ready for it.”

Colleges and universities, trying to  stay afloat financially, have been criticized by some health-care experts for having students back on campus and then sending them home when they become ill with COVID-19.

“It’s the worst thing you could do,” said Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s leading infectious-disease expert, on NBC. “When you send them home, particularly when you’re dealing with a university where people come from multiple different locations, you could be seeding the different places with infection.”

After more than 500 SUNY Oneonta students tested positive for COVID-19, the campus stopped in-person teaching and sent the students home.

Whalen explained on Friday morning why there were discrepancies between COVID-19 figures from the county and figures on the university tracking system.

At 4 p.m. on Thursday, her department received the report of an additional 31 positive cases and then began the investigations that would determine whether those students live in Albany County or elsewhere.

Urgent-care centers and doctors’ offices may be using point-of-care tests, which give immediate results to patients waiting for them, much like a strep test.

Formerly, COVID-19 tests were sent to laboratories, which were part of an automatic reporting system that sent notification to county health departments.

Whalen surmised that doctors’ offices administering the point-of-care tests may not realize they have to be reported to the county’s health department.

“Earlier this week, the governor issued an executive order to mandate that these entities, when they get a result, report it to the local health department within three hours,” she said. “But this is real time. This has not been happening yet.”

What happened Thursday, Whalen said, was the results were “batched and given to SUNY Health Services,” which informed the county’s health department.

Investigation into the batch of 31 were underway during the press briefing, Whalen said.

“Of the initial 12 students we investigated, some were symptomatic and some weren’t,” said Whalen. “The symptoms ranged from very mild to flu-like illness.”

Whalen stressed the importance of identifying and isolating students with COVID-19 so “they are not going on campus, they are not socializing with other people, they are not working jobs … This is essential whether you are asymptomatic or whether you are clinically ill.”

She went on, “It is also important for those that are placed on quarantine … to stay within their homes … isolated from other individuals for 14 days,” which is the incubation period for the illness.

Whalen had said at Thursday’s press briefing that there is a perception college-age people may not get seriously ill with the coronavirus disease 2019. “We cannot guarantee that …,” she said. “You can still get very sick … You can still transmit it to someone who may end up dying.”

Asked what would happen if in-person classes were canceled but students remained in off-campus housing where they may gather, McCoy said that Albany’s mayor, Kathy Sheehan, has “made an initiative to break these parties up.” The Albany Police Department, McCoy said, is “making sure there’s no more than 20 people together.”

A July 4 weekend party on Hudson Avenue in Albany attracted about 200 college-age people, who didn’t wear masks and didn’t stay six feet from one another, resulting in close to 50 COVID-19 cases. At that time, officials stressed there were no penalties; rather, the emphasis was on getting the party-goers to come forward and be tested.

Rodríguez said on Friday that “student ambassadors” and staff from the university’s Division of Student Affairs are “walking the streets, trying to discourage this sort of behavior.”

He also said, “The overwhelming majority of our students at the University of Albany are committed … to complete the semester.”


Newest numbers

Cuomo on Friday announced the 35th straight day that New York State’s COVID-19 infection rate has been below 1 percent.

But the Capital Region, of which Albany County is a part, was over that, at 1.2 percent. The region with the highest rate was Western New York at 1. 5 percent while the North Country, as usual, remained the lowest of the state’s 10 regions, at  0.2 percent.

McCoy on Friday morning announced 23 new cases of COVID-19 overnight, bringing the county’s number of confirmed cases to 2,627.

“Today is the highest number of daily positives since we announced 21 positives on August 12,” he said.

Among the new cases, 20 had close contact with someone infected with COVID-19, two are healthcare workers or residents of congregate settings, and one did not have a clear source of infection detected at this time.

Whalen had said at Thursday’s press briefing that often people are not aware of how they contracted the virus. They could have contracted it from someone who was asymptomatic or they could have touched a surface and then touched their face.

“The message from this is … you should act as if you already have it. You have to protect yourself,” Whalen said, again stressing the importance of hand-washing, keeping six feet from others, and wearing a mask.

As of Friday morning, Albany County has 393 residents under quarantine, up from 341. The five-day average for new daily positives has jumped to 11.6 from 7.6. There are now 67 active cases in the county.

So far, 10,355 county residents have completed quarantine. Of those who completed quarantine, 2,560 of them had tested positive and recovered.

Friday is the third day that there were no new hospitalizations to report, with 14 residents still currently hospitalized due to the virus — one of them in an intensive-care unit. The county’s hospitalization rate remains at 0.5 percent.

Albany County’s COVID-19 death toll remains at 133.


More Regional News

  • ALBANY COUNTY — While Albany County Executive Daniel McCoy on Friday announced the county’s seven

  • As sales-tax revenues continue to fall short of last year’s mark and as New York State residents continue to pay more in federal taxes than the state gets back in programs, according to new reports from the comptroller’s office, Governor Andrew Cuomo has sent a letter to congressional leaders urging quick passage of more federal pandemic relief.

  • If Albany County stays above the 3-percent threshold for 10 days, it will be declared a yellow zone, the least restrictive of the three zones in the state’s micro-cluster strategy, which began on Oct. 6.

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.