SUNY Cortland Showcases High Vaccination Rate, Will Seek Off-Campus Enforcement of Public Health Measures

(Photo Source: Kevin L. Smith/Cortland Voice).

Despite a start to the semester that featured high numbers of positive COVID-19 cases, SUNY Cortland officials said last Tuesday they are now feeling more comfortable with student’s compliance with COVID-19 mitigation measures.

At Tuesday’s Cortland Common Council Meeting, SUNY Cortland Director of Communications Frederic Pierce told council members and members of the public that 94 percent of students at the university are vaccinated. The university has also issued approximately 200 religious or medical exemptions to students who have not received the vaccine.

“After the initial spike at SUNY Cortland and many other college campuses, the infection rate and number of cases have dropped dramatically and consistently,” Pierce said.

Even with the high vaccination rate, Pierce said the school may dismiss four students who the school has not been able to contact and have not provided proof of vaccination. The SUNY system, which issued a mandate for students to be vaccinated to attend campuses across New York, gave a deadline of Sept. 27 to disenroll students who did not provide proof of vaccination. 

Pierce also noted the university has received visits from multiple officials to check in on COVID-19 preventative measures.

“We have had visits from county and state officials, and SUNY administrators at the campus and they are pleased with what we are doing,” he said.

As far as planning for next semester, Pierce said the school wants the COVID-19 vaccine to be akin to other vaccines mandated by the state.

“We want to set it up in a way in which COVID-19 vaccination will be just like measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccination,” he said. “That is required if you are going to college. Next semester there won’t be this rush or extended grace period for everyone who is going to come to campus to get vaccinated.”

Gigi Peterson, a professor of history at SUNY Cortland, provided public comment that she was glad to see a higher vaccination rate than the one registered by the university at the beginning of the semester.

“But vaccination alone can’t prevent the spread,” Peterson said. “Physical distancing isn’t taking place in classrooms, and as a community, we need clarity about testing and contact tracing so that public information and resources can be directed as needed.”

Peterson read an email from a fellow faculty member who described instances where they were not being contacted by contact tracers despite being in close proximity to students who contracted the virus. 

“Twelve percent of my own students have reported their positive tests, but I only learned of one of them from the college itself,” Peterson said.

In response, Pierce said the SUNY COVID-19 tracker has been erratic in its reporting. 

“The problem is that the tracker was developed last year, when there was a system in place that required mandatory lockdown of campuses if you had a certain number of cases during a two-week period,” he said. “This makes it difficult to read and confusing.”

For some members of the council, concerns have arisen regarding students’ behaviors in the community.

Councilmember Katy Silliman (D-2nd Ward) said college students living in her ward don’t always follow  health protocols set by the university.

“We see a lot of gatherings and students are not masked,” said Silliman, who asked Pierce what the university’s strategy was for enforcing these protocols for students who live off campus. 

Pierce responded, adding that the university has done off campus outreach, but needs to do more.

“Off campus students were an achilles heel of ours last year,” Pierce said. “We have had conversations with local police and they haven’t seen the huge house parties that act as superspreader events, but they have seen students gathering at other places and not wearing masks. We are working with students to develop peer-to-peer messaging, but that has not gotten off the ground the way we would like it to.”

Ultimately, Pierce said, the solution lies within students’ peers.

“It needs to come from students themselves. They have to get to a point where they don’t feel like they are being wimpy or nerdy when they put on a mask,” he said. “It needs to be acceptable among their peers.”