Surveillance testing program delayed at least another week

By Stephen Neukam 

Rider will delay its random surveillance coronavirus testing program for at least a week after the university learned that the out-of-state company the university contracted with is unable to work in New Jersey, according to a top university official.

Personal Care Medical Associates (PCMA), a Pennsylvania-based health care provider that Rider retained for its new testing efforts, must register with the New Jersey Communicable Disease Reporting and Surveillance System, which reports and tracks cases for the state. This was overlooked by administrators in talks with the company and when designing the testing program.

The delay is another setback in the university’s testing infrastructure, which was majorly disrupted when negotiations with another health care provider fell through before the start of the semester. Rider lags significantly behind peer institutions in testing, a troubling sign for those on and off campus.

There are also worrying signs for student involvement in the random testing infrastructure. The program, which is voluntary for the fall semester, has only received 38 student applications, according to Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Planning and Secretary to the Board Debbie Stasolla. The goal is to test 80-100 students a week. 

With the testing delayed, the university still plans to start testing all members of the men’s and women’s basketball teams this week, which, according to Stasolla, was mandated by the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC). The student-athletes will receive the test kits that the school already has in its possession, purchased when the university learned early in the semester that it would have to take on testing duties. 

Stasolla was unable to confirm the cost of the PCR tests the university has purchased because she said she did not know the price. 

MAAC testing obligations mean that the university must test the men’s and women’s basketball teams weekly, although since the semester began six weeks ago, a total of only 18 tests have been administered by the Student Health Center, according to data released on Oct. 13.

Students who enrolled in the voluntary random testing program were scheduled to be first tested on Oct. 13. The students were notified the day before that the testing had been delayed.

While the administration is hopeful that the delay will only last a week, Stasolla said the school was attempting to expedite the approval process but was unsure if it would be ready in time for next week’s scheduled testing.

Stasolla also confirmed that the university is not testing the sewage of residence halls after some schools across the country have turned to this method to identify coronavirus cases. Stasolla said that Rider considered the testing but ultimately decided that it was too inefficient since a positive test would not make clear which student was positive.

In September, 300 students in a dorm at the New Jersey Institute of Technology were quarantined and tested after traces of coronavirus were found in sewage. Public health experts have said sewage testing is a strong early-warning system, especially useful in detecting asymptomatic students living on campus.

During the first weeks of the semester, Rider publicly released only vague statistics about coronavirus cases and did not disclose testing numbers. Rider recently expanded its coronavirus dashboard to include more specific information, such as tests administered and students in quarantine and isolation. The university is again expanding its reporting system, making a clearer distinction between on-campus and off-campus cases, after feedback from the state. The university will no longer report positive cases from those who work or reside off campus and have had no contact with the campus since the start of the fall semester.

According to data released on Oct. 13, testing numbers at the university have remained low. Between Oct. 5 and Oct. 11, the school tested only six students, with none coming back positive. There was an uptick in off-campus quarantining numbers in the past two weeks, with a total of 30 students in quarantine in that span.

Student Government Association Vice President for Academic Affair Elizabeth O’Hara, a junior computer science major, said that the organization is creating a program to incentivize student involvement in the testing program.

“Students who are chosen to be tested will then be entered into a weekly raffle to win gift cards to local eateries and on-campus favorites,” said O’Hara. “We believe that such giveaways will encourage participation while also keeping students motivated in Rider’s efforts to keep our campus community as safe as possible.”

Caption: An administrative holdup will cause Rider’s surveillance testing program to be delayed for at least another week.

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