SARS-CoV-2 Testing Program for Faculty, Staff, and Graduate Students

September 30, 2020

The safety of each of you and our entire Columbia community has been a foundational objective as we live and work through the current pandemic.  In order to keep our campus safe for those residing, attending classes, and working here, we have implemented many safety measures over the past several months.  These include modifications to facilities and the campus environment, informational signage, expanded transportation options, personal protective equipment (PPE), protocols regarding distancing, and a health attestation app.  Further, the Columbia Compact codifies mutual responsibilities to maintain a safe campus environment.  

Earlier this year, after consultation with both internal and external experts, we designed and implemented a SARS-CoV-2 Testing Program anchored in evidence and designed to be responsive to changing conditions in New York City and the Columbia campus. The Columbia Testing Program is designed to provide unbiased information on the COVID-19 situation on campus as compared to the broader environment based on epidemiological principles and results from modeling.  It is also designed to be nimble and adaptive, responding to changing epidemic conditions on campus and in New York City as well as other imperatives.  To date, more than 24,000 tests for asymptomatic students, faculty, and staff have been conducted, with a cumulative campus positivity rate of 0.05%. 

Consistent with the principle of flexibility, we are instituting several adjustments to the Columbia Testing Program. These include the following: 

  • Expansion of sampled population. Earlier this month, in response to reports of clusters of transmission in New York City and in New York State, we expanded our sample size for surveillance testing from the initial weekly sampling of 5% to 10% of individuals who are accessing campus facilities.  
  • Implementation of waste water surveillance.  Waste water surveillance of several residential buildings on the Morningside campus has also been put in place, as an efficient way to detect presence of COVID-19 cases in those settings.  
  • Launching a new pilot voluntary testing component. Beginning October 1, we will further adjust the testing plan to reach a larger proportion of Columbia affiliates through a new pilot program. Participation in this new pilot voluntary program is entirely voluntary and will offer a weekly SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic test if individuals fulfill the following eligibility criteria: 
    • Current graduate student, staff, or faculty  
    • Accessing a campus at least 2 days/week  
    • Commitment to weekly testing for the first four weeks of October 

Evaluation of the new voluntary testing pilot program will measure uptake, feasibility, and utility across affiliates and campuses, taking into account the current and emerging COVID-19 conditions in New York City.  In addition, the evaluation of the pilot phase will inform adjustments to testing as we move forward. 

Please note that the gateway testing for all individuals returning to campus as well as the weekly testing of all undergraduate students will continue unchanged. 

The findings from the overall SARS-CoV-2 surveillance testing program are evaluated on an ongoing basis and are adjusted as needed. Aggregate testing results continue to be posted on a weekly basis on the University COVID-19 website

To schedule an appointment for your gateway, surveillance, or voluntary COVID-19 test, please use the secure Online Patient Portal and follow scheduling instructions. Further information on testing can be found on the University COVID-19 website.  

Be well, 

Melanie Bernitz, MD, MPH 

Associate Vice President and Medical Director, Columbia Health, and Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine (in the Center for Family and Community Medicine)