According to the letter penned in February by senators Daniel Savin and Manuela Buonanno of the Research Officers Delegation, the democratic body which oversees research at the University, 5,000 individuals enter Columbia’s campus each week without routine COVID-19 testing. Though this letter urged the University’s testing program to “evolve,” testing policies remain unchanged months later.
Savin and Buonanno’s letter, which was addressed to interim Provost Ira Katznelson and Senior Executive Vice President Gerald Rosberg, came shortly after Columbia’s spike in positive COVID-19 tests early this year. January saw a record-breaking 0.63 percent average positivity rate for students, faculty, staff, and affiliates tested at the Morningside campus, Manhattanville, and Lamont-Doherty. This spike can likely be attributed to affiliates unknowingly having the virus and entering campus in the absence of mandated testing.
The University’s current policy requires every student, faculty, and staff member to complete a gateway COVID-19 test before they access Columbia’s facilities. Following that initial test, the University only mandates regular testing for one group: undergraduates living on campus. These individuals must comply with semiweekly COVID-19 tests or risk losing their housing. Graduate students, faculty, staff, and undergraduates who access campus but do not live in Columbia housing are only required to get tested if they are drawn as part of the weekly random sample testing.
In their letter, Savin and Buonanno expressed concern for individuals working in Columbia University Irving Medical Center labs who “have direct contact with patients and healthcare workers who may themselves be exposed to COVID.” Apart from random sample tests, individuals working in these facilities are “encouraged” to get weekly tests, though, as research assistant Philip Raftopoulos, CC ’22, explains, “there’s no penalties if you don’t.”
Jeremy Michelson, a graduate student working in the Picard Lab at the medical center, said he does not harbor “any significant concern[s] about infection at work,” because the majority of people in his lab are vaccinated.
However, Savin and Buonanno caution against this false sense of security. “While [vaccinated] individuals are likely protected from severe disease, they interact with unvaccinated individuals for whom there is no testing program,” they wrote.
The senators recommended that Columbia’s testing program “be expanded to require weekly testing for all affiliates who enter campus one day or more per week.”
Daniel Kim, CC ’24, lives off campus and regularly accesses the Morningside campus to visit Butler Library, the C. V. Starr East Asian Library, and John Jay Dining Hall. Kim voluntarily gets tested, but notes that “it would [be] very possible to not get tested and to access those facilities.”
“There’s a real disparity between living off campus and on campus, in terms of the testing requirements that you have to adhere to,” said Kim. “But that disparity doesn’t manifest itself in your access to campus facilities.”
Raftopoulos works in both the medical center and an organic chemistry lab in Chandler Hall. He voluntarily gets tested weekly as he is not living in Columbia housing and agrees with Kim’s take on the testing policy’s ambiguity.
“The testing process is so hazy if you’re living off campus,” Raftopoulos said. “If people weren’t responsible about it, they could get away with it, for sure.”
The Research Officers Committee credits Columbia’s fluctuating positive COVID-19 case rates to these vague testing policies. In the fall semester, the weekly average positivity rate for student, staff, faculty, and other affiliate COVID-19 tests at Morningside, Manhattanville, and Lamont-Doherty was 0.17 percent. The same figure for the spring semester, through the week of March 29, is a positivity rate of 0.29 percent, an increase which Savin and Buonanno believe is linked to positive individuals “potentially … entering campus at higher rates.”
Salvador Moncayo, CC ’21, works in a lab in Chandler Hall and conducts tests on mice at the medical center. He believes the testing program should be more comprehensive.
“The discrepancy [in testing] is huge,” he said. “It would make more sense to me if they were to give everyone … one test per week, and that includes everyone who’s going to lab.”
Dr. Maureen Miller, an adjunct associate professor of epidemiology at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, agreed that the administration’s testing policy is incomplete.
“[The University] can’t just push [testing] on one group of people, and then not even offer it to other people,” she said.
Many have given up on more comprehensive testing following months of inaction from the administration. Students, staff, and faculty are hoping for widespread vaccine requirements by the fall semester instead. To many, this means mandating that every individual return to campus fully vaccinated.
“It makes sense that anyone who wants to go back to the University would have to get mandatory [COVID-19] vaccines, because they do the same for other vaccines,” Moncayo said, citing Columbia’s flu vaccine mandate as an example.
The goal of a campus-wide vaccine requirement would be herd immunity, which occurs when enough of a population is immune to a disease so that it is unlikely that those who are not immune will contract it. Dr. Miller explains that herd immunity at Columbia would require about 85 percent of students, staff, and faculty, and other affiliates to be vaccinated. “I believe that will be achieved,” she said.
This may not bring about the immediate return to normalcy that many are hoping for, however.
“We don’t live in a bubble,” cautioned Miller. “We pretend we do, but … there’s a lot of interaction, there’s a lot of in your face, here in New York, which is what we all love about [the city]. But that brings certain risks.”
With all of this interaction, the Columbia community is unlikely to stop wearing masks or social distancing any time soon, she added.
Miller encouraged students, faculty, and staff to focus instead on the positive changes that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about.
“We will never be back to the way we were before,” she said. “And there are good things about that and there are very bad and sad things about that. I think it’s an opportunity. It’s an inflection point, and an opportunity to bring about a lot of social change in particular.”