Test and Trace Program

Last updated:  November 6, 2020

As Columbia University prepares for reactivation of campus activities, multiple approaches are being taken to create a COVID-19 ready campus and to limit the potential spread of SARS-CoV-2. The success of this strategy will depend on widespread adoption of and scrupulous adherence to critical public health measures including:

  • Face covering and mask wearing
  • Physical distancing
  • Hand hygiene
  • Daily symptom checking and reporting
  • Enhancements to facilities such as maximizing fresh air, air filter replacement, and supplementary cleaning

This document provides extensive guidance on the plans at Columbia for SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic testing, contact tracing, quarantine, and isolation.


The Columbia University Test and Trace Program supplements these measures by providing a robust and comprehensive testing surveillance program, complemented with rapid contact tracing to further mitigate the risk of transmission on Columbia’s campuses.

COVID-19 Helpline

The Columbia Health COVID-19 Helpline (212-854-9355) is available Monday to Friday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Our team of nurses and health educators can answer general questions from Columbia students, faculty, and staff on COVID-19, and provide guidance on testing, contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine.

This helpline is not for scheduling testing appointments.

Appointments can be self-scheduled via secure.health.columbia.edu. Please review the COVID-19 website FAQs for answers to most questions.


In accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, screening, testing, and contact tracing can slow and stop the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The approach taken by Columbia to testing and contact tracing will protect individuals’ privacy and confidentiality consistent with all applicable laws and regulations.

The Columbia University Test and Trace Program has been designed based on extensive input from a broad group of individuals at the University with expertise in public health, epidemiology, infectious disease, modeling, and statistics. This has led to creation of a program that is both flexible and adaptable based on current COVID-19 conditions on campus and in New York City.

This program will be in place effective August 17, 2020.

Testing in the context of the Columbia University Test and Trace Program refers to PCR testing, otherwise known as diagnostic tests. The program does not refer to antibody testing. The key principles and considerations that inform the program are the following:

  1. That there be a single testing program for the University, across all campuses, schools, and institutes
     
  2. That no out-of-pocket costs or insurance billing for individuals tested be a necessary part of the program
     
  3. To the extent possible, that testing be centralized in order to ensure quality and uniformity of test performance
     
  4. That testing laboratories be compliant with applicable regulations regarding diagnostic testing, specifically, Food and Drug Administration (FDA) review of the test assay, Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) laboratory certification, and approval of the laboratory by New York State Department of Health
     
  5. That all results of the testing be confidential with adherence to all applicable New York State, HIPAA, and FERPA laws protecting the privacy of individual health and educational information. Columbia affiliates who test positive through the Columbia testing program will be referred to the tracing component of the program for further management and tracking of close contacts
     
  6. That testing results be provided in a timely manner, ideally within 24-48 hours of specimen collection, in order to promptly allow positive individuals to self-isolate and to initiate contact tracing
     
  7. That testing be minimally intrusive and convenient to the individuals to be tested and the test uses approaches such as self-collected, observed, nasal swabbing (rather than the deeper, clinician-administered nasopharyngeal swabbing procedure) with on-site testing facilities readily available
     
  8. That the assay must have high sensitivity and specificity as well as low rates of false positive and false negative results
     
  9. That the testing program be mandatory. All affiliates returning to campus will be required to sign the Columbia Community Health Compact agreeing to follow all of the elements of the public health approach outlined above as well as agreeing to participate in the testing program.

Full details on the testing program can be found in the "COVID-19 Testing Process."  

Summary of testing approaches can be found here:

Testing Logistics

Details on test scheduling, including testing locations, can be found on this website.

Note: No affiliate can return to campus activities until they receive a negative COVID-19 PCR result. Students are expected to quarantine until their results are available.

Last Updated: October 28, 2020

Contact tracing is an important strategy to prevent spread of COVID-19. Individuals who are diagnosed with COVID-19 are asked about people with whom they have had close contact while they may have been infectious based on CDC definition of close contacts. These contacts are then notified about their potential exposure without revealing the identity of the person diagnosed with COVID-19, and they are asked to self-quarantine for 14 days and are given guidance on how to take care of themselves and prevent transmission to other people.

While primary contact tracing responsibilities and procedures for identified cases of COVID-19 are the responsibility of New York State and New York City, Columbia University has established a comprehensive Contact Tracing Program consistent with the New York State guidelines to trace the contacts of an individual testing positive. Guided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local public health agencies, the contact tracing program uses protocols and best practices for contact investigation and notification. The contact tracing program’s goal is to assist in conducting contact tracing for all cases identified among Columbia affiliates through the Columbia testing program, or as reported to the University through the symptom attestation process. Persons who have not been notified by the local health authority or the Columbia University Test and Trace Program are not considered to have increased risk because of exposure to individuals diagnosed with COVID-19. The Columbia contact tracing program will partner with the New York City Test and Trace Program.

The contact tracing program is directly linked to the Columbia surveillance testing program, and treats information sensitively and consistent with applicable New York State, HIPAA, and FERPA laws protecting the privacy of individuals. Any Columbia affiliate identified as having a positive test for COVID-19 through the testing program will be connected to the contact tracing program, and will be contacted by a contact tracer, and asked to share details of any close contact (defined as anyone they have been within 6 feet for a cumulative total of 10 or more minutes over a 24 hour period during the two days prior to the positive test result or the two days prior to the first onset of symptoms, whichever period is longer). These close contacts will then be notified by the contact tracer of their exposure that has put them at risk for infection, and will be provided guidance regarding quarantine and testing, and will be assisted as needed.

In addition, if an individual is identified as testing positive for COVID-19, the appropriate department, unit, or supervisor will be notified by a member of the testing or tracing team, Human Resources, academic department, or by the individual, if they choose. The notification will state that an individual has tested positive (while maintaining the confidentiality of the individual) and provide directions for appropriate management of specific spaces and for guidance on individual actions. Additionally, guidance will be provided on accessing appropriate medical and psychological support.

Information regarding contact tracing technologies is evolving and the use of such tools by New York State and New York City are being taken into account, as well as investigating the potential use for additional contact tracing technologies within the Columbia community.

See Columbia Contact Tracing Program for more details and FAQs on contact tracing.