SU clarifies new COVID-19 testing policy, addresses vaccine rollout

SU clarifies new state COVID-19 policy

Under the revised policy, SU can continue to operate in-person activities until they surpass 880 positive COVID-19 cases.
Published: February 26, 2021 | Updated: February 27th, 2021 at 11:44 pm
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Last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a revised policy which allows colleges and universities to continue to operate in-person activities as long as their COVID-19 positivity rate remains below 5% over a 14-day rolling period, scrapping the previous 100-case threshold.

The new policy was made in close consultation with state and local public health officials, New York State Health Department Public Information Officer Sam Fulds said. According to Cuomo, this change was intentional as only schools testing 25% or more of their students and staff each week can shift to the new guidelines.

“This new guidance will not only incentivize colleges and universities to ramp up their testing efforts, it will also give these schools more flexibility before having to shift to remote learning and pause campus activities so more schools can remain open without jeopardizing safety,” Cuomo said in a press briefing last week.

In an email sent out to students and staff Friday, Vice Chancellor for Strategic Initiatives and Innovation J. Michael Haynie said that the university is currently testing 75% of the campus population each week. Additionally, given the now 5% positivity rate threshold for a suspension of in-person activities, he said the new number of positive cases that would put SU on pause sits at 880 cases.

Haynie also emphasized that while the new threshold of 880 cases puts the university at a better place to remain in-person for the remainder of the semester, the new case metric will not be the only factor when considering the operation of in-person activities. Instead, moving forward, the university’s case threshold will be made in consultation with the SU Public Health Team and public health experts in order to best serve the community, according to Haynie. 

Be assured that the Syracuse University Public Health Team will continue to proactively monitor the public health situation on campus and if necessary, those experts may act in advance of a mandate from New York State to introduce restrictions or limitations deemed necessary to protect the safety and well-being of our community,” Haynie said in an email to students and staff Friday. 

According to Dr. Brittany Kmush, an SU assistant professor of public health and expert in epidemiology, public health experts at universities will need to account for a variety of other metrics in addition to the amount of positive cases, including contact tracing capabilities and their ability to isolate and quarantine students.

“For Syracuse University, I think there would need to be other measures we look at other than just case counts, especially because that number of 800 cases to have at one time does seem rather high,” Kmush said. “I think it’s a good idea for colleges and universities to take a look at their personal situation and develop metrics that make sense for their specific situations.”

Epidemiologically, using percentages makes more sense than applying the same raw number to every situation, according to Kmush. Allowing for colleges and universities to instead tailor their metrics to their own communities makes more sense in the long run, Kmush said. 

“When you think about cities, five cases in New York City means something completely different than five cases in Syracuse,” Kmush said. “For some of these smaller colleges, 100 cases are too many for them. It’s good to have a more tailored approach rather than a hard shut-down number in most places.”

Haynie also addressed questions regarding the university’s role in vaccine distribution in his email Friday. According to Haynie, SU has applied to New York State to be an employer point for distribution in the event that vaccine supplies improve or the eligibility is expanded. 

The state is currently in its 1a and 1b phase for vaccinations, allowing anyone over the age of 65, as well as first responders, nursing home workers, p-12 school teachers and public transit employees, among others, to get vaccinated. Since Feb. 15, those with certain underlying conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity are also now eligible to receive the vaccine. 

At the current rate of distributing 1.7 million vaccines a day, the United States would reach the 70-90% threshold needed to achieve herd immunity by July, according to the New York Times. And as vaccine supplies become more available and vaccination rates increase, herd immunity could come even sooner, some experts say. 

The awaited approval of Johnson & Johnson’s one dose COVID-19 vaccine would likely increase the rate of vaccinations as well, according to The New York Times. 

Food and Drug Administration analyses released Wednesday show that the vaccine has an 72% overall efficacy rate in the United States and an 86% efficacy rate against severe forms of COVID-19 in the United States. The F.D.A’s Vaccine Advisory Panel voted to authorize the vaccine Friday, allowing for a final decision to come as early as Saturday. 

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is a Magazine, News, and Digital Journalism and Political Science senior and one of the Lead News Producers for The NewsHouse.