Party Selfies and Hazmat Suits: How N.Y.’s Worst Campus Outbreak Unfolded
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It was the middle of the night when a man in a hazmat suit led a first-year student from her dormitory at SUNY Oneonta to a van as she cried quietly, a scary experience later shared on social media. She had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Later that week, a photo appeared on social media of a dozen infected students partying in an isolation dorm and posing for a selfie, drawing the ire of students, parents and officials.
Those incidents seemed to highlight how SUNY Oneonta in upstate New York had seriously mishandled the pandemic, resulting in the worst outbreak of any college in New York State, with more than 670 cases, totaling about 10 percent of the campus student population.
In terms of the percentage of students infected, it is one of the most notable outbreaks on a campus anywhere in the country.
As a result, officials had to cancel in-person classes for the fall and send students home.
Universities across the country have faced daunting challenges in trying to resume in-person instruction. But the disarray at SUNY Oneonta has left university officials scrambling to explain why they did not put in place a strict monitoring system to prevent the virus from gaining a foothold. The oversight of the broader State University of New York system has also been called into question.
Students, parents and staff members said they were dismayed that SUNY Oneonta did not require students to have negative virus tests before they arrived. Nor did the university test students once they came to campus. The university also did not closely prevent gatherings in off-campus housing.
The fallout has been swift.
Next semester, all SUNY schools will be required to develop testing plans, and surveillance testing is now mandatory on every campus, according to the system chancellor, Jim Malatras.
SUNY is also conducting a review on “what went right and what went wrong” at Oneonta, the chancellor said, adding that “clearly, things went wrong.”
Mr. Malatras, who officially became chancellor on Aug. 31, said he was unsure why SUNY did not mandate every campus to require negative tests before classes began.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the school said the decision to not test asymptomatic students was based on C.D.C. guidelines.
“We asked students to quarantine for seven days and 14 days if they were traveling from a hot state or out of the country,” the statement said.
Oneonta did not make Barbara Jean Morris, the school president, available for comment.
As the dust settles, families, students and staff members said they had been left confused and disappointed. Jacob Adler, 20, said the college relied too heavily on students maintaining social distance on their own.
“The administration expected many things from the students that went undelivered, but instead of reacting in a way that was proactive, they chose to downplay the severity,” said Mr. Adler, a senior.
This summer, colleges in New York were tasked with creating reopening plans that aligned with the state Department of Health’s standards.
While SUNY’s 64 schools also were given protocols to follow, they had the option to make their plans more strict. Some required negative test results. Others, like Oneonta, did not. Throughout the system, no two plans were exactly alike, especially when it came to testing.
Outbreaks in universities around the country have shown that perhaps no perfect plan exists. But most experts have agreed that testing should be an important aspect of reopening campuses.
Colleges benefit from both requiring negative tests before allowing students on campus and following up with regular testing when possible, said Anita Cicero, the deputy director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
“Every case you catch is helpful,” she said.
Fred Kowal, president of United University Professions, which represents SUNY workers, said his union had pushed for comprehensive testing since June.
SUNY and state officials approved Oneonta’s plan on July 2; most classes would be online, and in-person instruction would end by Thanksgiving. Students would be required to wear masks on campus and social distancing would be enforced by “policies and procedures,” according to the plan.
Health screening questionnaires, in which students fill out a form saying they were virus-free, were required in lieu of test results, and students were encouraged to quarantine before classes began.
The first two positive cases were announced on Aug. 25. Mr. Malatras said those two cases didn’t overly concern him. After all, it was only the second day of classes.
But each day, the numbers worsened. The source of the outbreak appeared to be from gatherings, including one party of about 50 student athletes, the chancellor said. (The school said that at least 20 people have been suspended for attending or hosting parties and unrelated arrests.)
“I’ve been doing this long enough now where I see certain warning signs. This was a warning sign,” Mr. Malatras said.
Little to no restrictions kept students from leaving the campus. Though officials blame the outbreak on large gatherings, students like Juliet Pinkney, 20, a sophomore, said she was able to meet with a small group of friends at an off-campus apartment with no problem.
These types of smaller gatherings were common, students said. Haley Dimonda, a freshman who filmed the man in a hazmat suit, said students should have been more careful because they were not tested beforehand.
“The university should’ve definitely had testing before we even came on campus in the first place,” she said.
By Aug. 27, 13 students tested positive, prompting the chancellor to order SUNY Upstate Medical University to assist in mandatory “pool testing” — where a number of saliva samples are grouped together in a “pool” and tested as one — for all students. If the pool’s results return positive, that means at least one student was infected.
Out of the 29 preliminary pools of Oneonta students, 19 returned positive, Mr. Malatras said, meaning anywhere from 19 to 90 students from those pools were infected.
“SUNY Upstate Medical said they’ve never seen anything like that,” he said.
The virus’s spread was unwavering. Within days, 29 more positive cases were found, and the school suspended five students for having organized parties. Soon after, 105 students — or about 3 percent of the people who were on campus or using campus facilities by then — had tested positive.
On Aug. 30, Mr. Malatras announced that the school would cancel in-person activities for two weeks. That same day, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the state was sending a virus-control team to keep the outbreak from spreading to the city of Oneonta.
“At that point, I saw enough,” the chancellor said.
The state’s efforts did little to stop what had already begun. Some students, including some resident assistants, left when the two-week lockdown was announced, while those who stayed behind tried to manage the stress.
While in between classes on Sept. 3, Cooper Levine, a sophomore resident assistant, got a text from a fellow R.A. who told him he had just tested positive.
After his third class of that day, Mr. Levine checked his email and found an ominous announcement: Only three days into the temporary lockdown, Oneonta was nearing 400 cases, and the campus would close.
The chancellor had pulled the plug, sending students home and canceling all in-person classes for the semester.
“They had a plan for if the semester went perfectly, and that’s it,” Mr. Levine said.
But shortly after the shutdown was announced, about a dozen students in the isolation hall gathered for drinks, and took a selfie, which ended up on social media.
Chancellor Malatras said his “blood boiled” when he saw the photo. (The school spokeswoman said the students in the photo will be disciplined.)
Most other students began the process of going home.
Ms. Pinkney, who had taken a pool test that had come back negative during the second week of classes, was urged by her father, who has colon cancer, to get tested again. She took a rapid test in town on Sept. 4, which came back positive.
She was placed in the school’s isolation dorm for 10 days, where she remained until Sunday.
Ms. Pinkney’s father, Daryl, said he hasn’t heard anything from the college about the outbreak and closure. He said he’s extremely at-risk after having surgery to treat his cancer about two weeks ago. The family was scrambling to find housing for Ms. Pinkney, who is now staying in a regular dorm room until she tests negative.
“It’s a ripple effect. All this stuff affects people’s lives,” Mr. Pinkney said. “I want to protect my daughter, but I want to protect myself.”
The overall lack of planning and communication has bothered other parents.
Ms. Dimonda’s mother, Debra, said she found out the school closed only when her sister told her over the phone.
She wished the SUNY campuses had one general plan and worked together.
“After all the state went through, they had a really big missed opportunity to band together with the governor and chancellor to make a real plan to protect students across the board equally,” Ms. Dimonda said.