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FMCC to start virus tests

JOHNSTOWN — Fulton-Montgomery Community College this week began regular testing of students for the coronavirus. The college will test students every other week as part of a surveillance testing protocol mandated for all State University of New York campuses by the chancellor.

FMCC Acting President Greg Truckenmiller on Thursday reported to the Board of Trustees that the college this week implemented coronavirus surveillance testing.

The protocol developed by the college in consultation with the Montgomery County Public Health Department will see a sample size of approximately 190 students tested for the coronavirus every two weeks.

All nursing and radiology technologist students will be subjected to testing during each sample period, as well as 75 other randomly selected students registered for on-campus activities. Students enrolled only in fully remote classes will not be required to submit to testing.

Students subject to testing during a particular sample period will be notified by email and directed to visit the college gymnasium during open testing hours scheduled over the course of three days.

The surveillance testing program at FMCC will utilize rapid screening diagnostic tests developed by SUNY Upstate Medical University that were approved for use by the state Department of Health. The tests use saliva samples collected by the subject that are handed off to staff for shipment to SUNY Upstate for analysis.

“It’s not the nasal swab that you’ve seen, and that people cringe about,” said Truckenmiller. “The student administers the test themselves; they provide a saliva sample.”

Collected samples are pooled together for analysis, with 10 to 25 samples combined together for a single analysis by SUNY Upstate. The pooling technique that speeds up processing and reduces costs was approved for use by the state health department.

If the pool sample tests negative for the coronavirus, all individuals whose samples were included in the pool do not have the coronavirus. If the pool sample tests positive for the coronavirus, remaining portions of the already collected samples are individually tested to identify the infected individual or individuals.

Students scheduled for testing through the surveillance program who have already undergone coronavirus testing within 10 days may instead provide documentation of their recent test rather than undergoing an additional test on campus.

“We have received a lot of documentation mostly from nursing and Rad Tech students who might work in healthcare currently,” said FMCC Vice President for Student Affairs Jane Kelley.

Kelley reported that just under 100 students had undergone testing as of Thursday with an additional day of testing scheduled Friday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

“I have to say that the students have been very cooperative and willing to come in and do the testing,” said Kelley. “The flow has been very good. We haven’t had a lot of backlog, because we don’t have the density on campus, we don’t have traffic problems.”

Only classes requiring lab components or other hands on learning, approximately 30 percent of all classes at FMCC, are taking place in-person on campus this semester under the college’s fall reopening plan. The remaining 70 percent of classes are fully remote. The reduction in on-campus density due to the coronavirus means that just under 700 students are currently enrolled in classes that bring them to campus over the course of each week.

The college’s surveillance testing protocol has around 25 percent of the students attending classes on campus undergoing testing during each sample period every other week. Truckenmiller noted that the sample size was developed from recommendation by the Montgomery County health department given current infection rates locally.

“If we saw an uptick in cases in the area, the recommendation would be to increase the level of testing that we’re doing, but given our current rates of infection, which are pretty low, this is the approach that has been recommended and that we’re following through on,” said Truckenmiller.

Truckenmiller acknowledged that concerns over the cost associated with testing also played a role in the college’s decision to adopt a “conservative” approach to testing.

“It’s something we’re happy to do and participate in the community public health crisis that’s going on right now. It is, however, an added expense to our budget. We bear the cost of those tests,” said Truckenmiller.

Although SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras in September announced that all colleges and universities in the SUNY system would be required to implement regular surveillance testing programs to detect coronavirus cases on campus to quickly identify and contain outbreaks, SUNY has not offered any financial assistance to schools to cover associated costs.

At the same time, colleges are facing 20 percent cuts in state aid due to the economic impacts of the coronavirus and new expenses to implement health safety protocols on campuses and to support the expansion of remote learning.

“They feel that their contribution is by providing us a low-cost test,” said Truckenmiller of SUNY.

The cost to the college for testing each student is approximately $15, meaning that each sample period of 190 students will cost $2,850 initially. If a pool sample tests positive for the coronavirus, each of the contributing samples will undergo individual reflex testing to identify the individual who tested positive for the virus. This would cost the college $60 for each sample that is individually analyzed.

The testing period for FMCC for the fall will be limited, with the college’s schedule calling for most courses after Thanksgiving break to revert to a fully remote format for the remainder of the semester. Only nursing and Rad Tech students will continue to take in-person classes after Thanksgiving, meaning that those students alone will subject to what will be the fourth and final round of surveillance testing for the fall.

FMCC is currently awaiting final guidance from SUNY on how to plan for the winter and spring semesters relative to the coronavirus. Although Truckenmiller acknowledged that he would like to see more students on campus in the spring, based on initial draft guidance provided to college leadership teams for feedback, he pointed to the expansion of in-person classes this academic year as unlikely.

“The chancellor, as he’s made very public, is pushing for greater testing and more restrictions on on-campus activities,” said Truckenmiller. “We are looking at the present time at a spring semester that looks very much like the fall semester in terms of the percentage of on-campus instruction versus remote instruction. We expect that to continue on and we’ll look at what additional parameters will be required of us as we move towards that semester.”

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