ALBANY — University at Albany saw 18 new COVID-19 cases last week, inching closure to the 100-case threshold that according to state guidelines would trigger a campus-wide “pause” and force classes to shift online.
Off-campus parties have been blamed for the spread of the disease, but strict sanctions against students who knowingly break safety protocols and widespread testing are only part of the solution, experts say.
Education and changing students’ attitudes about the disease is a key component to managing any public health crisis, according to Dolores Cimini, director at UAlbany’s Center for Behavioral Health Promotion and Applied Research.
“In the 1980s, when we did AIDS prevention, what we did was education and we gave people condoms and dental dams. During COVID-19, we doing education and we are giving people masks, sanitizer, and other things to protect themselves,” Cimini said. “We distributed them not only to our long-term students but also to our neighbors.”
Since May, Cimini and her team have been analyzing student behaviors and beliefs, particularly focusing on the relationship between substance use and COVID-19 transmission.
A survey of students conducted over the summer found that 96 percent of respondents wear a mask around others. The study also found that students who drank alcohol or used drugs were less likely to follow disease prevention rules like handwashing, mask-wearing and social distancing.
“In order for prevention to work, we have to work at the same time at several levels … we need to do early intervention for students who are at risk and teach them skills they need to remain healthy,” Cimini said. “If students are exposed, we need to get them referrals and the healthcare that they need.”
To address risky behavior, Cimini is leading a COVID-19-specific social norms campaign that highlights the percentage of UAlbany students who are following rules and guidelines. Posters can be spotted around campus showing students modeling good behavior.
The college also offers virtual support group sessions and operates a student-run hotline to help students make healthy choices and gain skills to intervene when they see others violating the rules.
As of Friday, there were an estimated 83 on-campus infections diagnosed for the between Sept. 11 and Sept. 25, but due to a quirk in the way campuses are tracking cases, the 14-day clock reset for UAlbany on Saturday, and the number of cases counted toward the state’s threshold for temporarily shutting down academic life dropped back down to zero.
Since the start of the semester, more than 130 on-campus UAlbany employees and students have been diagnosed with the disease, according to the State University of New York’s COVID-19 tracker.
If a campus accumulates 100 cases within a two-week period, the school must pause classes for 14 days to get the outbreak under control, according to guidance from the state Department of Health. Many colleges have been counting cases over a static two-week period, rather than a rolling two weeks, as is used for most other reopening metrics, but the DOH guidance is not specific.
In some situations — such as the case of SUNY Oneonta — students may be sent home for the semester.
Cancel classes, or not?
Regardless of how cases are tallied, some disease control experts say canceling classes may not the best way to control the spread of COVID-19.
National public health officials like Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx have asked U.S. colleges to keep students on or near college campuses rather than send them home, where they can continue to spread the disease without showing symptoms.
Louise-Anne McNutt, an infectious disease expert who teaches at UAlbany, says based on her observations, the classroom may be the safest place for students.
UAlbany classrooms have ventilation systems to filter out coronavirus and are marked to keep students separated. Masks are mandatory and students wipe their desks and seats before class, she said.
“There is a real sense of cooperation,” McNutt said. “The most I need to do is point at my nose if someone’s mask has slipped a bit.”
The classroom also provides an avenue to have conversations with students about their decision-making and coping skills. Pausing classes could be counterproductive since COVID-19 transmission has been linked to “unstructured” time, she said.
“The governor was correct to have an evaluation structure useful to determine when interventions at colleges and universities needed to occur. However, as colleges have opened we have a better understanding of the environment and risks,” McNutt said.
SUNY on Friday announced uniform disciplinary action across the 64-campus system for students who break the COVID-19 rules that include mask-wearing and a ban on large gatherings. Students can be suspended or expelled for deliberately endangering their peers and the surrounding community or for failing to participate in health screenings and surveillance testing.
While the majority of students at the Albany campus follow the restrictions, there will always be a small number of people who will continue to defy them.
For those students, according to Cimini, “enforcement is the best strategy.”