Test and Trace Program

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 FAQs across the COVID-19 website 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.

Testing Approaches

The following are elements of the Columbia testing approach:

  1. All Columbia affiliates (faculty, staff, and students) are strongly encouraged to test for SARS-CoV-2 if they develop symptoms consistent with COVID-19 infection
  2. All students are encouraged to obtain a SARS-CoV-2 test in the 14 days prior to their return to campus, where possible. Any student who receives a positive test result must remain at home through their illness and recovery, and until cleared to return to campus by their health care provider
  3. All Columbia affiliates* will complete an initial SARS-CoV-2 test upon their arrival to campus. Returning employees may not report to work until a negative test result is furnished. All students will quarantine in their residence until the results of their initial SARS-CoV-2 test are available
  4. All undergraduate students, plus any graduate student living in a dormitory-like setting, will participate in routine SARS-CoV-2 testing. Testing frequency will be weekly at the beginning of the semester and may be adjusted based on key COVID-19 indicators
  5. All graduate students living in non-dormitory settings, and all Columbia faculty* and staff, after their initial test, will be randomly sampled for COVID-19, with an initial cohort of 5% of the campus population each week during the semester. The frequency and sample size of these random screenings may be adapted based on key COVID-19 indicators

*Exception: CUIMC clinical faculty

Symptomatic Testing

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. Testing for such individuals is available through Columbia Doctors/New York-Presbyterian Hospital or primary care or urgent care clinics for employees, and Columbia Health or CUIMC Student Health Service for students. This test result will be shared with the ordering clinician and the individual tested. As per regulatory requirements, positive SARS-CoV-2 test results are reported to the New York City Department of Health and may be shared with other key individuals at the University for the purposes of effective contact tracing (e.g., Columbia University Test and Trace Program, Human Resources, or academic departments) as permitted by consent forms.

Surveillance Testing

There are two main components to the Columbia surveillance testing program: initial testing and ongoing testing. These use PCR tests, otherwise known as diagnostic tests, to establish presence of SARS-CoV-2 virus. Antibody or serologic tests determine evidence of the body’s immune response to a previous SARS-CoV-2 infection, and thus may not be used to diagnose a current infection. It is currently not known whether a positive antibody test indicates protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection; therefore, antibody tests are not currently a component of Columbia’s testing program.

Surveillance testing, described below, will be available on the Morningside and Columbia University Irving Medical Center campuses, in a location selected for convenient, high-throughput, large-scale testing. Participation in surveillance testing is mandatory for all Columbia affiliates who return to campus.

Summary of testing approaches can be found here:

Initial, or ”Gateway,” Testing

The goal of initial testing is to identify any asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic cases of COVID-19 prior to entering the campus. This allows the University to identify and isolate individuals with positive test results to prevent spread to others. It also establishes a baseline prevalence of COVID-19 on campus.

As such, all Columbia affiliates* returning to campus will have an initial “gateway” SARS-CoV-2 test. Such testing has been in place for faculty, staff and the small number of students who have returned to campus since June 22, 2020 and will continue for all returning affiliates throughout the summer and fall as campus operations resume.

All students will receive an initial “gateway” test upon arrival to campus and will be required to quarantine until their test results are available (usually within 24-36 hours). In addition, students are strongly encouraged to be tested in their home location for SARS-CoV-2 within 14 days prior to their arrival on campus. The goal of this pre-arrival test is to reduce the potential that a person with SARS-CoV-2 infection will arrive on campus and infect others. The University asks any student testing positive to stay home until they have fully recovered and are cleared by their health care provider to return to campus. These students also will undergo gateway testing upon arrival to campus.

All students and affiliates arriving from outside of the United States or from U.S. states with high prevalence of COVID-19 are required to quarantine for 14 days as required by New York State. The current list of these states is listed on New York’s travel advisory webpage. If alternate approaches to the 14-day quarantine, including testing pre- and post-arrival, become available as per New York State, this requirement will be updated.

*Exception: CUIMC clinical faculty

Ongoing Testing

Periodic testing of Columbia affiliates allows us to determine the  ongoing prevalence of COVID-19 among Columbia affiliates and the identification and isolation of individuals who test positive for SARS-CoV-2. Different subsets of the Columbia community are at different levels of risk, and the testing strategy recognizes these different risks, which was further examined through modeling conducted in the preparatory phase for the testing plan. Thus, the testing approach will be as follows:

  1. All undergraduate students, plus graduate students living in dormitory-like residences: This group is considered to be at higher risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission by nature of living in congregate dormitory-like residences. As a result, for this group of students, the ongoing testing frequency will be tailored and adapted to the virus transmissibility as estimated by the reproductive rate (Rt) in New York City and on campus, defined as a combination of residential environment, interactions with other members of the Columbia community, including faculty, staff, and other students, and adherence with public health measures such as face coverings and physical distancing. Initially, students will get SARS-CoV-2 testing on a weekly basis. The frequency of the testing will be re-evaluated over time in view of the status of the epidemic in New York City and the campus. This testing is mandatory for all students returning to campus
  2. Graduate students living in non-dormitory residences, and all faculty* and staff who have on-campus responsibilities: The objective of the testing program is to evaluate campus prevalence of COVID-19 and contrast this with New York City community prevalence. This will allow real-time adjustments of Columbia’s approach to implementation of public health measures and campus operations. For this group, the approach will be similarly flexible and adaptable. Following the initial baseline test, random sampling of 5% of the population will occur on a weekly basis, and will be adjusted as needed based on the campus and NYC prevalence of COVID-19

Failure to comply with a surveillance testing order will result in the loss of campus access privileges.

*Exception: CUIMC clinical faculty

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.

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 10 or more minutes 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.

Updated: August 26 2020, 7 a.m.

Quarantine is the separating and restricting of the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease, to determine if they remain healthy or become sick, and to prevent the possible spread of the communicable disease. An important priority for successful quarantine is providing individuals to be quarantined with the supports to enable them to do so safely.

Given the large number of states and countries with high transmission rates of COVID-19, Columbia strongly encourages all students to quarantine in their home location for 14 days prior to their return to campus, and if possible, to obtain a COVID-19 PCR test at their current location. However, neither quarantine prior to arrival nor a negative COVID-19 PCR test prior to arrival substitutes for any New York State quarantine requirement, as described below.

Quarantine requirements will be attested through the ReOpenCU app. There are currently two COVID-19 scenarios where quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in New York State is required:

  1. Travel-related quarantine:
    • All Columbia affiliates (faculty, staff, and students) arriving from countries outside the United States with high COVID-19 transmission per the CDC or from U.S states with high prevalence of COVID-19 are required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival.
    • The current list of states can be found on New York’s travel advisory webpage, with guidance on how to register arrival in New York. Additionally, the countries outside the United States (designated as Level 2 or 3) with a quarantine requirement upon arrival in New York State can be found on the CDC’s travel advisory page.
    • Per New York State’s Travel Advisory, all out-of-state travelers from designated states must complete the required form upon entering New York. Travelers who leave the airport without completing the form will be subject to a $2,000 fine and may be brought to a hearing and ordered to complete mandatory quarantine. Travelers coming to New York from designated states through other means of transport, including trains and cars, must fill out the form online.
    • Students can fulfill the quarantine requirement in several ways:
      • Arrive in New York State (or another state not on the New York State Travel Advisory) at least 14 days prior to the date for student return to campus, and quarantine in an alternate (non-campus) location. They will then be able to participate in campus activities after they receive their initial gateway test result, as long as the initial result is negative
      • Arrive in New York State (or another state not on the New York State Travel Advisory) less than 14 days prior to the date for student return to campus, and quarantine in an alternate (non-campus) location. If they have not fulfilled the required 14-day quarantine prior to their arrival on campus, they will need to complete the remaining days by quarantining on campus prior to participating in campus activities
      • Complete the 14-day quarantine requirement on campus. This may be in a dormitory, suite, or apartment. Follow all guidance about staying in their room, and minimizing contact in shared bathrooms or other common spaces
    • The only exception to this guidance for quarantine is for health care workers and for students currently enrolled in Columbia’s medical, dental, nursing, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and genetic counseling programs. These individuals are required to adhere to the essential worker guidance upon their arrival in New York City, including getting a COVID-19 PCR test within 24 hours of return and following other return to work procedures
    • This guidance is subject to change, and if alternate approaches to the 14-day quarantine, including testing pre- and post-arrival, become available in New York State, this guidance will be updated. While this travel advisory remains in effect, any travel by any Columbia affiliate to U.S. states on the advisory during the term will require quarantine upon return to New York as described by New York State
    • The New York State Department of Health expects all travelers to comply with this quarantine. Pursuant to Executive Order 205, any individual who violates a quarantine order may be subject to a civil penalty of up to $10,000 or imprisonment up to 15 days per PHL 229
  2. Individuals identified as being a close contact of an individual with COVID-19 are required to quarantine for 14 days after their last contact with the infected individual:
    • Individuals who have been in close contact for 10 minutes or longer at distance of less than 6 ft with an individual who tests positive for SARS-CoV-2
    • Individuals who share a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and/or common living space with an individual who tests positive for COVID-19 (suite mates or same floor area)

If an individual is asked to quarantine, they should follow the guidance here:

In most cases, individuals can quarantine in their regular residence while taking appropriate precautions to protect those they live with. Individuals under quarantine must stay home (except when directed by a medical professional), maintain distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others, consistently use face covering/face mask and arrange for food and grocery deliveries. They should also monitor their health. At the end of the 14-day period if the individual has no symptoms, their quarantine can be ended with no further actions. If at any time, the individual develops symptoms, they should contact their health care provider for further guidance and testing.

Support during Quarantine or Isolation for Morningside students: Columbia Health has designed a series of programs and services to support students' well-being needs while in quarantine or isolation in New York. Download the guide or visit the Columbia Health website for more information.

Isolation is the separation of sick people with a contagious disease from people who are not sick.

There are two scenarios where isolation is recommended:

  1. Individuals with symptoms of COVID-19 who have been tested and are awaiting test results:
    • These individuals will be asked to isolate in their room, apartment, or home. For certain student undergraduate populations, such individuals will be moved to a designated isolation space while they await test results
    • If they test negative, they can return to their regular accommodation without restrictions, or to quarantine depending on the exposure
    • If they test positive, they will continue to isolate
  1. Individuals who are diagnosed with COVID-19:
    • These individuals will be instructed to isolate in their room, apartment, or home. For certain undergraduate student populations, they will be moved to a separate COVID-19 isolation space.

If an individual is asked to isolate, they should follow the guidance here:

Students in the designated isolation facility will be provided with food delivery. All students in isolation, regardless of location, will be provided with daily medical support through telehealth, mental health virtual support spaces, and any necessary academic accommodations. Faculty and staff should reach out to their primary care provider for medical support.

Individuals who are isolating due to a diagnosis of COVID-19 must follow the guidance of their health care provider regarding discontinuation of isolation. For those with symptoms, this usually occurs when:

  • At least 10 days have passed since symptom onset and
  • At least 24 hours have passed since resolution of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications and
  • Other symptoms have improved

For those with a positive test who never develop symptoms, isolation can be discontinued 10 days after the date of their first positive RT-PCR test.

Support during Quarantine or Isolation for Morningside students: Columbia Health has designed a series of programs and services to support students' well-being needs while in quarantine or isolation in New York. Download the guide or visit the Columbia Health website for more information.

Repeat testing for individuals in isolation is not recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), based on evidence that individuals who have completed the time course described above are no longer infectious and that some individuals may continue to have positive PCR tests due to viral debris or non-infectious particles that may be detected by the PCR assay.

Further guidance on whether someone should isolate or quarantine can be found on this website.