ALBANY — The University at Albany has recorded 46 new COVID cases in five days, bringing it closer to the point of mandatory remote learning.
UAlbany said Wednesday that some of the newly confirmed infections are connected in some way to the 49 infections last week, but the source of others hasn’t been identified yet.
It also said the university has taken action to halt the spread of COVID-19 before it reaches the threshold for all-remote learning — 100 new infections in 14 days — and will do so again if needed.
“The focus has been on the 100-case threshold, which has been automatic,” spokesman Jordan Carleo-Evangelist said. “But we talk to the Albany County Department of Health and SUNY daily, and the state Department of Health as well. If they saw and we saw something that appeared concerning or required action, we would do that.”
He added: “It really depends what is going on within the numbers.”
The decision Friday to indefinitely suspend athletics on the Albany campus was one such instance — the move was not required but was made in consultation with public health experts based on the profile of those testing positive.
There were 49 confirmed positives at the University of Albany as of Friday, and there were 46 more Saturday morning through Wednesday evening.
However, under the protocol implemented by the SUNY system, the countdown to all-remote teaching reset to zero Saturday morning.
Some have questioned the logic of this.
Albany County Health Commissioner Dr. Elizabeth Whalen, for example, said it would make more epidemiological and logical sense to use a rolling 14-day period rather than static 14-day windows to look for a worrisome cluster of infections.
“From our perspective, we look at this as a rolling two weeks,” she said Tuesday. “Has there been a two-week period where we could identify that? … Was there ever a period where we were concerned we were hitting [100 infections]?”
The state Department of Health uses rolling periods of varying lengths to measure COVID activity in some other situations. It said Wednesday the static 14-day windows (Aug. 28 to Sept. 11, Sept. 12 to Sept. 25, and so on) are being used with SUNY to provide a clear and consistent measurement across all 64 campuses. The state Health Department also noted that each campus has discretion to take action before hitting their trigger number of infections.
One hundred infections in one window is the maximum — smaller colleges will trigger the switch to all-remote learning for at least two weeks if they reach 5 percent of students and employees infected. That’s as low as nine infections for small campuses such as those in Clinton and Sullivan counties.
Among SUNY campuses in and near the Capital Region, the threshold is 100 infections at UAlbany and Hudson Valley; 94 at SUNY-Poly; 85 at Cobleskill; 56 at Adirondack; 40 at Fulton-Montgomery; 38 at Schenectady County; and 15 at Columbia-Greene.
Along with UAlbany, the big infection clusters in the SUNY system have been in Cortland (68 total to date), Fredonia (92), Oneonta (671), Oswego (174) and Buffalo (64).
Excluding UAlbany, the seven SUNY campuses in and near the Capital Region have had a combined total of only nine cases.
(All of these numbers come from SUNY’s COVID-19 Tracker, an online dashboard showing testing data at each campus. The tracker may lag some results but appears to be much closer now to real-time reporting than it was Monday.)
The University at Albany campus is a small city in normal times, with about 17,500 students in the fall semester and thousands of employees.
It’s down to about 11,500 people now, Carleo-Evangelist said, and the daily total is lower because those 11,500 would never all be on campus at the same time. There are only about 4,000 students occupying the 7,800 dorm room beds, and 60 percent of all classes are fully remote, with some portion of the students and faculty never setting foot on campus.
That’s where analysis of the infection numbers — not the total, but the individual details of each infected person — becomes critical, he said. Is the infected student studying 100 percent remote from home on Long Island? Living off-campus in an Albany apartment and coming on-campus for certain classes? Staying off campus entirely except for a part-time job on campus?
Knowing who’s infected and how they are connected informs the response, but it’s a time- and labor-intensive process to make the connections.
Carleo-Evangelist said having one of the largest county health departments in upstate New York (and one of the busiest through the pandemic) has been invaluable, not just as classes resumed last month but while preparing all spring and summer for the return of students.
“They’re not just good at what they do, they’re accessible,” he said of the Albany County Health Department.
So far among the 46 infections confirmed in the current 14-day window, there has been nothing found to match the scale or concentration of cases that prompted the shutdown of athletics, Carleo-Evangelist said.
What’s also happening is that pool testing — mixing together a group of samples from multiple students and performing one test on the pooled sample to save time and expand the picture — is yielding presumptive positives that must be followed up with individual tests of everyone in that group, he said.
“As we ramp up our pool testing, more students were referred for diagnostic testing,” Carleo-Evangelist said.
Most of the students who are infected are not showing symptoms, he said, so they don’t know they are sick and can infect others. It’s good that they are being identified though increased testing.
“The trick when you want to contain an outbreak is to start picking off those asymptomatic cases,” he said.
As of 7:15 p.m. Wednesday, at the most recent update of its COVID-19 dashboard, UAlbany was reporting 86 students infected in the preceding 14 days, 39 of them living on campus, 47 living off campus; zero employees confirmed infected in the preceding 14 days; and 46 new positives confirmed in the previous four days.