Interim COVID-19 Public Health Guidance

Last updated: June 30, 2020

Columbia University is committed to providing a safe and healthy environment for all its faculty, staff, students, and visitors. We have therefore developed the following COVID-19 Public Health Guidance in response to the pandemic. Our goal is to minimize the potential for transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in our community. Achieving this goal will require full cooperation among all students, staff, and faculty. Each member of the Columbia community is responsible for implementing and adhering to all aspects of the COVID-19 Guidance for their own well-being and for the collective good.

The Guidance focuses on the implementation of measures that have been proven to be effective in controlling the spread of the novel coronavirus or where there is evolving encouraging evidence. SARS-CoV-2 is spread primarily by respiratory secretions expelled from the mouth and nose and by touching of contaminated surfaces followed by touching of the mouth, nose, or eyes. Preventive measures recognized to date include the use of face covering and personal protective equipment, social/physical distancing, healthy hygiene practices, cleaning and disinfection of high-touch surfaces, symptom screening, and use of SARS-CoV-2 testing and contact tracing as per New York State and CDC Guidelines.

Each member of the Columbia community is responsible for implementing and adhering to all aspects of the COVID-19 Guidance for their own well-being and for the collective good.

The information below is intended to apply to individuals on campus currently and those who are returning through the phases designated by New York State. These phases (1-4) are defined according to criteria outlined and monitored by the state. Specific activities consistent with each phase are defined by each school, institute, and other entities at the University.  As interim guidance, this document will be updated as the city progresses/regresses through Phases 1-4. Updates relevant to each version of the document will be noted below.

Updates to previous guidance include the following:

  1. Inclusion of Columbia University’s provision of face coverings for students, staff, and faculty, free of cost.
  2. Inclusion of Columbia University’s COVID-19 symptom screening procedures and testing approach.
  3. Inclusion of New York State’s social/ physical distancing guidelines, including a 50% maximum occupancy limit for enclosed spaces.
  4. Inclusion of New York State’s guidance for the cleaning and disinfection of exposed areas in the event an individual is confirmed to have COVID-19.
  5. Inclusion of New York State’s guidance on internal communication, movement, and travel.
  • In accordance with University policy, affiliates are required to complete a daily online symptom screening assessment before coming to work. This can be completed one of these three ways. All three methods require a UNI and password to log in and prompt an affiliate to answer three simple screening questions indicating whether they have any symptoms associated with COVID-19, have been in close contact with anyone diagnosed with COVID-19, or have tested positive for COVID-19.
    • Online using the web app on a digital device.
    • Downloading the ReopenCU app from the App Store, which does not collect other data from your device.
    • Accessing the web app using kiosks located in the Morningside, Manhattanville, and CUIMC campuses.
  • If the answers to all three questions is “No,” affiliates will receive a 24-hour “green pass” with a date and time stamp that can be presented to security personnel or other personnel assigned to checking access to University buildings. The green pass will also be linked to University ID badges, and absence of a green pass will restrict entry into University buildings. Read more about the symptom self-checking process.
  • CUIMC affiliates who require assistance with this application should contact the CUIMC IT helpdesk via 212-305-4357 and select option 5 or 5help@cumc.columbia.edu.
  • Affiliates are encouraged to immediately disclose if and when their responses to any of the symptom check-list questions changes, such as if they begin to experience symptoms, including during or outside of work hours. 
  • Columbia University refers to DOH's “Interim Guidance for Public and Private Employees Returning to Work Following COVID-19 Infection or Exposure” regarding protocols and policies for affiliates seeking to return to campus after a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 or after the employee has had close or proximate contact with a person with COVID-19.

The current SARS-CoV-2 testing strategy at Columbia University includes the following:

  • Individuals with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and those with history of contact with presumed or confirmed COVID-19 case are strongly encouraged to test for SARS-CoV-2.
  • Any individual who desires SARS-CoV-2 test can get tested whether or not they have symptoms or are at increased risk. 
  • Individuals who returned to campus as of June 22 as part of the research ramp-up phase are required to have initial SARS-CoV-2 testing within 14 days of return to campus (either before or after date of return). These individuals are likely have returned from other parts of the country, including possibly from communities with active SARS-CoV-2 transmission, and will be re-entering a closed community of individuals who have been on campus.
  • Individuals who were consistently on campus prior to June 22 are not required to get SARS-CoV-2 testing. These individuals were in the New York City area, which has experienced a substantial decrease in burden of COVID-19 cases. However, such individuals can obtain SARS-CoV-2 testing, if they desire to do so.
  • SARS-CoV-2 testing is confidential. Individuals who test positive are not required to disclose the result of their test.
  • It should be noted that public health measures such as consistent face covering, physical distancing, hand washing, staying home when sick among others, remain the most important measures for prevention of transmission of SARS-CoV-2.

Ongoing review will continue of testing technologies and capacity, test performance, logistical and practical issues, acceptability and feasibility of routine/ mandatory testing and the role of testing for epidemic control in order to determine the role of SARS-CoV-2 testing, and procedures will be modified as indicated.

A strategy is under development for ongoing random sampling of the University community, as well as for SARS-CoV-2 testing for undergraduates who may return to residential communities.

Primary contact tracing responsibilities and procedures for identified cases of COVID-19 is the responsibility of New York State and New York City. Whether diagnosed by SARS-CoV-2 testing at a Columbia University/ New York Presbyterian laboratory or at any other laboratory, such laboratories are required to notify the New York City Department of Health of any positive test. New York City is generally responsible for contact tracing and informing individuals who have had contacts that put them at risk of infection, advising them regarding self-quarantine and testing, and providing the necessary support, in addition to maintaining confidentiality. The University Contact Tracing Program will assist in conducting contact tracing activities amongst its affiliates for cases identified through the Columbia University testing program.

Information regarding contact tracing technologies is evolving and the use of such tools by New York State and New York City in such activities will be taken into account, as well as investigating the potential use within the Columbia University community. 

  • Columbia University should inform affiliates about proper use of face coverings/PPE, proper hand hygiene, and cough and sneezing etiquette. This should include instruction and informational materials on:
  • Washing hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available. Informing all that if their hands are visibly dirty, they should use soap and water over hand sanitizer. Key times for cleaning hands include:
    • When arriving to the office
    • Before and after work breaks
    • After blowing of nose, coughing, or sneezing
    • After using the restroom
    • Before eating or preparing food
    • After putting on, touching, or removing cloth face coverings
  • Avoiding touching eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Covering mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, or use the inside of elbow. Throwing used tissues into no-touch trash cans and immediately washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol (see CDC’s coughing and sneezing etiquette for further guidance).
  • Providing soap and water in shared working and living spaces (workplace settings, classrooms, residence halls, etc.). If soap and water are not readily available, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol. Ensuring that adequate supplies are maintained. Increasing hand sanitizer availability in public spaces.
  • Providing tissues and no-touch amenities (i.e., hand sanitizer dispensers, sinks, trash cans, water fountains, paper towel dispensers, hand dryers) in multiple locations
  • Signs should be posted around campus on how to stop the spread of SARS-CoV-2 virus, particularly at the entrance of buildings and in other areas where they are likely to be seen. Signage should remind individuals to:
    • Cover their nose and mouth with a face covering when six feet of social distance cannot be maintained
    • Properly store and, when necessary, discard PPE.
    • Adhere to physical distancing instructions.
    • Report symptoms of or exposure to COVID-19, and how they should do so.
    • Follow hand hygiene and cleaning and disinfection guidelines.
    • Follow appropriate respiratory hygiene and cough etiquette.
  • Wearing face covering of the mouth and nose is required, consistent with CDC, New York State (NYS), and New York City guidelines, while on university property, including outdoor spaces, at all times. Acceptable face coverings include, but are not limited to cloth (e.g. homemade sewn, quick cut, bandana), surgical masks, and face shields. Face covering may be removed by individuals in single offices when no other individuals are present and the door is closed. This is the only exception to the requirement for face covering,.
  • Providing face coverings to employees while at work, if they do not have their own, at no cost to employees. 
  • Provide training on how to adequately put on, take off, clean (as applicable), and discard PPD, including but not limited to, appropriate face covering. 
  • Providing bystander training to enable members of the University community to intervene  in socially appropriate ways if they observe individuals with lapses in face covering. 
  • Expectations that there will be cleaning or replacing of face coverings after use, and they may not be shared. Additional information is available as per CDC guidance regarding cloth face coverings and other types of personal protective equipment (PPE), as well as instructions on use and cleaning.
    • Note that cloth face coverings or homemade masks are not considered acceptable face coverings for workplace activities that require a higher degree of protection for face covering requirements. For example, if N95 respirators are traditionally required for specific activities, a cloth or homemade mask would not suffice. OSHA’s Guidance to Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19 should be used to determine risk level and the appropriate PPE.
  • Maintaining virtual operations for non-essential activities and resuming on-campus activities within the lower risk category based on the risk matrices developed by each school/institute/entity.
  • Limiting maximum occupancy to no more than 50% at any given time for a particular area, as set by the certificate of occupancy (as per phase II New York State guidance. This includes all facilities, e.g. offices, labs, classrooms, dormitories, dining halls, libraries, and transportation shuttles. Social/ physical distancing guidance requires, when feasible, maintaining 6 feet of separation or minimum of 113 square feet and based on type of space, in combination with proper use of face coverings.
  • For dormitory and shared-living facilities, efforts should be made to adhere to the physical distancing and wearing of face coverings, hygiene and other measures as articulated in this document.
  • Spacing of seating to at least 6 feet apart in offices, classrooms, labs, conference rooms, communal spaces, etc. and turn seats to face in the same direction (rather than facing each other) to reduce transmission caused from virus-containing droplets (e.g., from talking, coughing, sneezing).
  • Ensuring that there is one person per room, or whenever possible, maintain 6 feet of physical/social distancing or a minimum of 113 sq. feet per person if space is shared. If 6 feet distancing or 113 sq. ffee is not attainable, an adequate partition should be installed and all occupants should wear face covering while in the space. 
  • Providing extra time or staggering arrival and exit of building and at the start and end of in-person aggregated activities to allow individuals to enter and exit buildings, classrooms, restrooms while maintaining 6 feet of physical distancing.
  • Prohibiting the use of small spaces (e.g. elevators, supply rooms, personal offices, vehicles) by more than one individual at a time, unless all individuals in such space at the same time are wearing acceptable face coverings. However, even when face coverings are in use, occupancy must never exceed 50% of the maximum capacity of the space or vehicle, unless it is designed for use by a single occupant. Facilities should increase ventilation with outdoor air to the greatest extent possible (e.g., opening windows and doors in individual office rooms), while maintaining safety protocols.
  • Limiting ridership in elevators according to occupancy limit (50%) and encourage individuals to take the stairs if able.
  • Leveraging technology, if feasible, such as room sensors and real-time dashboards, to quantify and display utilization of spaces to ensure adherence to density thresholds. 
  • Restricting access to areas that have reached maximum capacity under distancing guidelines.
  • Using signs, tape marks, or other visual cues such as decals or colored tape on the floor, placed 6 feet apart, to indicate where to stand when physical barriers are not possible, particularly in building lobbies and communal spaces.
  • Implementing measures to reduce bi-directional foot traffic using tape or signs with arrows in narrow aisles, hallways, or spaces, and posting signage and distance markers denoting spaces of six feet in all commonly used areas or where people congregate.
    • Installing physical barriers if social/ physical distancing is not feasible in accordance with OSHA guidelines (e.g. strip curtains, cubicle walls, plexiglass or similar materials, or other impermeable dividers or partitions). 
  • Encouraging the use of video or teleconferencing for employee meetings whenever possible to reduce the density of in-person gatherings, per CDC guidance “Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers to Plan and Respond to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).”
  • Holding of in-person meetings in open, well-ventilated spaces and ensure that individuals maintain 6 feet of physical/social distance between persons or wearing of appropriate face coverings.
  • Closing of non-essential communal areas which promote gathering or are high-touch or limit occupancy.
  • Implementing practices for adequate physical/social distancing in small areas, such as restrooms and breakrooms, with signage and systems (e.g. flagging when occupied) to restrict occupancy when social distancing cannot be maintained in such areas.
  • Avoiding shared food and beverages (e.g. buffet style meals), encouraging bringing lunch from home, and reserving adequate space for employees to observe social distancing while eating meals.
  • Continuing closure of non-essential common areas (e.g. gyms, pools, game rooms).
  • Developing, implementing, and maintaining a plan to perform regular cleanings to reduce the risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 consistent with CDC Guidance for Cleaning and Disinfecting. Facilities should  maintain logs that include the date, time, and scope of cleaning and disinfection.
  • Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and objects that are frequently touched and high risk areas used by many individuals at least daily. This may include cleaning objects/surfaces not ordinarily cleaned daily (e.g., doorknobs, light switches, elevator buttons, etc.). Use all cleaning products according to the directions on the label. For disinfection most common EPA-registered household disinfectants should be effective.
  • Cleaning and disinfection must be rigorous and ongoing and should occur at least after each shift, daily, or more frequently as needed. Please refer to DOH’s “Interim Guidance for Cleaning and Disinfection of Public and Private Facilities for COVID-19” for detailed instructions on how to clean and disinfect facilities.
    • Cleaning of shared workplace and classroom equipment including laboratory equipment, desks, copying/scanning machines, faxes, shared computer keyboards and mouse devices, and telephones, before and after use using EPA-approved for use against SARS-CoV-2 virus  is available here.
    • Discouraging individuals from using each other’s phones, desks, offices, or other work tools and equipment, when possible.
    • Providing disposable disinfecting wipes so that individuals can wipe down commonly used surfaces (e.g., doorknobs, keyboards, remote controls, desks, other work tools and equipment) before each use.
    • Securing of adequate supplies to support cleaning and disinfection practices.
    • Ensuring ventilation systems operate properly and increase circulation of outdoor air as much as possible by opening windows and doors, using fans, or other methods.
    • Providing for the cleaning and disinfection of exposed areas in the event an individual is confirmed to have COVID-19, with such cleaning and disinfection to include, at a minimum, all heavy transit areas and high-touch surfaces (e.g. touchscreens, printers, keypads, telephones, hand rails, door handles). 
  • Conducting disinfection of spaces in the event of suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case using CDC guidelines on “Cleaning and Disinfecting Your Facility” and  "Interim COVID-19 Guidance for Commercial Building Management”).

Ensuring proper communication to all affiliates, vendors and visitors regarding training, preventive measures and other information. 

  • Adhering to safety practices and self-care for successful re-activation of phases of activities at the University and throughout the response and recovery phases from COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Informing supervisor if concerned about own or colleagues’ safety. If supervisor is not responsive, then issue should be raised with their dean, dean of students, Faculty Affairs or Human Resources Department. The University has a policy in place of non-retaliation against individuals who raise concerns based on legitimate motivations.
  • Intervening in non-confrontational way if observe evidence of stigmatizing or discriminatory behavior against individuals who have had COVID-19 or groups perceived to be at risk for SARS-CoV-2, if comfortable doing so.  Stigma can lead to reluctance to disclose symptoms or diagnosis of COVID-19 or prevent individuals from seeking testing and care.
  • Reporting incidents of stigmatization or discrimination to supervisor or if not responsive to Dean, Dean of Students, Faculty Affairs or Human Resources Department.  Relevant resources are available at this site: https://universitylife.columbia.edu/covid-19-CU-students-get-help#biasresponse