SUNY Oneonta leader defends actions before county board

Robert Cairns | The Daily StarSUNY Oneonta President Barbara Morris speaks to members of the media Thursday, Sept. 3 on the Oneonta campus as SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras looks at his notes.

 The day before state officials ordered her campus closed for the semester, SUNY Oneonta President Barbara Jean Morris met with the Otsego County Board of Representatives via teleconference on Wednesday, Sept. 2, for the board’s monthly meeting.

Morris accepted an invitation from the board to update representatives about a surge of 334 cases among SUNY Oneonta students, as of that day. Those cases accounted for 72.6% of the county’s confirmed cases since the pandemic began in March. The neared 700 by Tuesday, Sept. 6.

When asked where she thought the college’s reopening plan fell short, Morris said she didn’t think it had.

“I don’t think our plan actually did fall short. Obviously, an entity that faces this type of magnitude of viral load is going to find hiccups along the way,” Morris said, citing the shortcomings of the “snapshot” provided by testing before arrival.

“Until you get to a point where you can almost have daily testing, and there are some manufacturers getting out there with saliva daily home testing. But the infection load here, because of the high viral content, I don’t think any plan ... all plans would have broken down.”

Morris also said the school’s reopening plan followed the same guidance as the rest of the SUNY system. Of the 64 SUNY schools, 61 did not require testing before or upon arrival to campus.

Morris blamed previously reported “super-spreader events” as setting off the outbreak.

“It’s always difficult to plan for every scenario. But one of the things both Mayor Herzig and I thought before was that they were not testing like Hartwick College was testing every student before they came back, or when they came back,” Board Chair Dave Bliss, R-Cherry Valley, Middlefield, Roseboom told The Daily Star. “SUNY Oneonta, for whatever reason, didn’t do that, and as she (Morris) said, SUNY didn’t require it. But that’s all water under the bridge as it is now.”

As for discouraging the behavior that caused these “super-spreader events,” Morris said last week that six students and three organizations had been suspended. She also said that students with interim suspensions will not be taking classes and will go through the school’s judicial conduct review in the coming weeks and months.

“We are reviewing video tapes as well as anything else with regards to being able to identify, in particular, students attending events,” Morris said.

Asked how decisions about in-person instruction will be made regarding the rest of the semester, Morris offered no specific parameters, saying only that state guidelines instruct schools to “evaluate” after a two-week pause on in-person instruction. She said the school “could very well” be limited to remote instruction for the remainder of the semester.

That prediction became reality the next day, when SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras visited the Oneonta campus and announced he had ordered Morris to transition to online learning for the remainder of the semester. All students not under isolation or quarantine had left the campus by Monday night.

The outbreak has had impacts beyond the college.

Otsego County Public Health Director Heidi Bond said the biggest challenge facing her staff was a shortage of nurses.

“I could definitely use more nurses ... nursing staff is really what is needed,” Bond said. “I can tell you that I’ve been working 14-15 hours per day, my staff 10-12 per day for eight days now.

“We’re struggling here,” she said.

Rep. Ed Frazier, R-Unadilla, brought up the possibility of hiring nurses on a per diem basis to help short staffs during the surge in cases, a suggestion that was met with support from several other representatives.

Bliss said that after Wednesday’s meeting he contacted state authorities asking about the possibility of bringing on more nurses, but had not heard back. He called the extra hires “likely” if Bond said they were needed.

Morris also said that there had not yet been positive tests from faculty or staff, but that testing had begun and that confirmed cases were expected. Bond went a step further to say cases outside the college were likely.

Bond said, “I hope we can contain this to the college community, but being life that it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some cases in the community.”

In other news regarding the SUNY Oneonta coronavirus outbreak:

• At the suggestion of Danny Lapin, D-Oneonta, Bliss said he would ask about having a board representative join the “Oneonta Control Room” pandemic discussions.

• Morris said buses or taxis are not being permitted on campus and that the walks prescribed for students would be monitored.

• Morris refuted reports that the school was running out of isolation and quarantine rooms. She said that 44 quarantine rooms and 65 isolation rooms were occupied at the time of the meeting, and that 464 isolation beds and 135 quarantine beds were available.

• Despite the growing scale of the outbreak, Bond said the addresses of those with confirmed cases would not be disclosed to the public. She said that in some tracing interviews, interviewees have as many as 50 contacts. “At this point in the outbreak it would be impossible to put out a list of where people are. It would be impossible. People need to take the protections themselves,” she said.

An exception is that addresses will be provided to emergency services, but with an acknowledgement that there is a lag between positive tests and the reporting of those cases.

• Bond said she had spoken with superintendents of area school districts. She said they were “in discussions” and that “there may be some consideration to delay in-person opening.”

In other county business not related to COVID-19:

• Public Works Committee Chair Pete Oberacker, R-Decatur, Maryland, Westford, Worcester, said keeping work in-house on the box culvert project on the county Route 16 bridge “saved us several hundred thousand dollars.”

• The board voted to recognize the Cooperstown, Oneonta, Otsego County Film Partnership as the official film office for Otsego County.

Jared Bomba, staff writer, can be reached at jbomba@thedailystar.com or 607-441-7229

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