Rider lags significantly in coronavirus testing

By Stephen Neukam

Rider has tested only 12 students for the coronavirus on campus since the start of the semester, a worrying sign for residents and a clear indicator of the uncertainty of campus safety, the university revealed in updated testing data on Oct. 4.

The statistics, released after weeks of the university refusing to disclose the information, showed the school lagging significantly behind other comparable institutions in testing for the virus.

The 12 total tests give a stunningly incomplete picture of COVID-19 at the university — around 900 students are currently living on campus, and more travel to campus to attend the in-person classes that began Sept 21.

The university’s weekly COVID-19 dashboard disclosed three new positive student cases, all non-residential students, the most Rider has reported in a single week. Rider’s total reported confirmed cases from the start of the Fall 2020 semester sits at seven as of Oct. 4, which consists of six non-residential students and one employee.

Before the semester, the university’s agreement with the health care provider it courted to help with testing and contact tracing, Capital Health Care Management, fell through due to liability concerns and contractual hold-ups, according to Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Planning and Secretary to the Board Debbie Stasolla. The defunct agreement with Capital Health Care Management has not been previously publicly disclosed.

While the school has a partnership with the provider for off-campus testing, the burden of on-campus testing and contact tracing has fallen on administrators at the university.

On Oct. 6, Stasolla said the university reached an agreement with Pennsylvania-based Personal Care Medical Associates (PCMA) to conduct student surveillance testing beginning the week of Oct. 12 through the week of Nov. 16.

While Rider has tested under 1% of its student population, other universities have far exceeded that mark. Princeton University has administered over 21,500 tests; Quinnipiac University over 12,000; Iona College over 4,500 and Fairfield University over 2,700.

Some of these schools have started random surveillance testing of asymptomatic students, a process Rider has yet to implement. Some also made getting a test a requirement before returning to campus, an effort Rider did not make.

The surveillance testing will be voluntary, a quirk that will make generating higher testing numbers more difficult. Stasolla said that students must volunteer for the testing because the university did not notify them before the semester about a random testing program.

The plan, Stasolla said, is to test 80-100 students a week, which includes the thrice-weekly required testing of student-athletes. The university has thousands of rapid antigen tests set aside for the men’s and women’s basketball teams as well as for the wrestling team — resident students will not receive rapid antigen tests and instead will be given PCR tests, which are more suited for once-weekly testing because of their accuracy.

Testing will occur over a four-hour period each week, with results promised within 48 hours. The testing will be done in the tent outside the Student Health Center and will be administered by PCMA staff. Students’ health insurance providers will be billed and the university will pay any remaining costs to make sure there are no out-of-pocket expenses for students. Stasolla said testing should take “no more than 15 minutes.”

After a “trial” run to end the fall semester, the university is hoping to make the surveillance program mandatory in the spring.

“The university has been moving toward the direction of voluntary random surveillance,” said Student Government Association Vice President of Academic Affairs Liz O’Hara. “And, while it does not mean every resident on campus will be tested, it will provide meaningful context to the reported data.”

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