A big bill but little payoff for CUNY’s COVID testing system

A sign for a CUNY campus with NYC silver subway trains running above ground over it.
As CUNY struggles with declining enrollment, the university system’s PCR testing system has become an obstacle for faculty members and students — especially at community colleges. (Ben Fractenberg / THE CITY)

This story was originally published on Nov. 7 by THE CITY.

CUNY students and faculty are sounding the alarm about a mandatory on-campus COVID PCR testing program that they say fails to accommodate work schedules and has locked people out of their classes.

The program began in the summer of 2021 when the city’s sprawling university system, with 25 campuses and nearly a quarter-million students, awarded a small testing company, Applied DNA Sciences, Inc., a $35 million contract, originally to provide ongoing “surveillance” testing that included randomized testing and separate weekly testing for unvaccinated students. It then extended that contract for no additional fee through the end of this academic year, in which students are now required to be vaccinated.

“CUNY’s originally signed a one-year contract with Applied DNA for $35 million to supply consistent and readily available testing and monitoring data in order to keep the CUNY community safe. Earlier this year, the contract was extended — at no additional cost to the University — until July 2023, as Applied DNA Clinical Labs continues to supply these services,” said CUNY spokesperson Joseph Tirella. “As per the contract, $35 million is the maximum amount. The University has spent $13.3 million so far and is not contractually obligated to spend the total sum.”Unlike rapid testing, which can immediately identify people with transmissible COVID, the PCR tests take 24 hours (or 48 on weekends) to process at Applied DNA’s Long Island lab — leaving some students to go to class while the test results are still unknown. 

Those who miss their email alerts find themselves locked out.

Irene, a 25-year-old student at Bronx Community College who asked THE CITY to use her middle name for fear of interference from the administration, said she had to miss two classes on Oct. 12 after learning upon arriving on campus she had been selected for random testing. 

Her ID badge flashed red instead of green at the security desk when she tried to enter the campus, which meant she had been flagged for random PCR testing. Irene, who commutes from Yonkers, then had to take time off work the next day to go get tested. She was not able to return to campus until registering a negative test result. 

“I was infuriated,” she said. 

‘A Demonstrated Need’?

CUNY was not alone in instituting randomized testing earlier in the pandemic, but stands out now in continuing to require testing — even as it has experienced steep enrollment drops, including a 30% plunge in freshman enrollment at community colleges between the start of the 2019 and 2021 school years, according to the Mayor’s Management Report.

Both NYU and Columbia have eliminated their testing requirements. So has the city Department of Education, which ended its $30-million-a-month testing system ahead of the current school year. 

CUNY picked Applied DNA Sciences in the summer of 2021 in a competitive bidding process that sought COVID “surveillance testing” — measuring the prevalence of infections in the school community. 

When the Omicron variant emerged that fall, Applied DNA had to stop using its proprietary test, it told the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The lab temporarily used a third-party test while awaiting state and FDA approvals, which arrived on Feb. 17 according to Applied DNA’s test summary, on a new version of its test that could detect Omicron.

Nonetheless, a board committee chaired by former Bronx Borough President and mayoral candidate Fernando Ferrer unanimously extended the contract in March 2022 “due to possible surges in cases due to the Omicron variants or other highly transmittable COVID-19 variants,” meeting minutes show.

Asked to explain why CUNY is maintaining COVID testing while other the DOE has dropped it, Tirella directed THE CITY to the university’s COVID guidelines for Fall 2022, which doesn’t answer that question.

“The City University of New York is committed to keeping all our students safe and our COVID-19 testing protocols have been effective at minimizing the spread of the disease and keeping classes largely in person across the system,” Tirella said in response to an earlier, different request for comment.

He continued: “We have continued random testing that is free, flexible and consistent across all our 25 campuses and offices for students, faculty and staff. The PCR tests at our 19 testing sites enable CUNY to receive and maintain accurate and consistent data throughout our system, track positivity rates and minimize risks.” 

PCR tests “will basically tell you if there is a circulating virus,” said Danielle Ompad, an epidemiologist and associate dean of education at the NYU School of Global Public Health. 

“As an epidemiologist, I’m kind of happy to see that they are continuing to do testing, because with the switch to rapid home tests, we actually don’t have a really good sense necessarily of how much COVID there is in the community,” Ompad continued. “Because the only way we’re going to know if someone tests positive is if they go to a clinic or a hospital and get tested there, where it gets reported through the lab-based system. So, we are absolutely going to be undercounting cases.”

Different Deals for Different Campuses

CUNY informs students, faculty and staff that those selected for random testing must go to an on-campus testing site within a 14-day window. After the tests, they are sent results notifying them of whether or not they’ve been cleared for access, with those results also sent to the city health department. 

But on some campuses, including Bronx Community College, students said that they can return to class as soon as they take the PCR test. At other schools, students said they can’t come back to campus until showing a negative test result, even if that means missing classes. 

At a few campuses, including Guttman Community College in midtown Manhattan and the Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy in East Harlem, lack testing sites so students and staffers have to travel to nearby CUNY campuses. 

Meantime, the number of available hours for testing varies significantly between campuses, sparking concerns about equal access.

At Bronx Community College, Medgar Evers in Brooklyn, and York College in Queens, students get fewer than than 13 hours per week to drop in to a testing site. At Brooklyn College in Midwood, by contrast, students can stop by 28 hours per week.

Students are informed they have been selected for random testing via their preferred email, usually their school account. But two months into the semester, there are still Bronx Community College first-year students who haven’t had their school email activated, according to history professor William deJong-Lambert. 

”I think the whole problem is random testing. I would just drop it,” said deJong-Lambert. “How many lives are being saved by randomly testing students and faculty?”

DeJong-Lambert said about 10 of his students have emailed him stating they would miss or be significantly late to class because they were waiting in line to be tested.

Further south, Hostos Community College selected business management student Abi Boateng, 21, for random testing. 

She missed class when she belatedly learned she had been picked. After she made an appointment and took her PCR test, she was told she couldn’t enter campus for the day. 

“I was pissed when I found out because I was rushing to class,” said Boateng. Hostos had informed her of random selection via text message — and she hadn’t seen hers, she said.

“When they told me I didn’t know at first because sometimes I don’t pay attention to the text messages they send me,” said Boateng.  

At Brooklyn College, where CUNY community members have more hours to show up for testing, some praise the system.

“The testing site is on campus and is open pretty much every day,” said sociology professor Alex Vitale. “I went over on Wednesday after class and waited in line for about five minutes. The process itself took less than five minutes, and then I was done.”

A Valuable Contract

Applied DNA’s investor communications have noted that CUNY’s contract is critical for the firm, which as of August had no bigger client for COVID testing services.

According to a December 2021 company filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Applied DNA’s lab revenues jumped by more than $4.7 million, with $1.18 million of that coming from the CUNY testing contract. 

In a press release announcing the contract’s extension this August, the company stated that its “COVID-19 testing volumes, including the CUNY contract, fueled the Company’s record fiscal 2021 revenues and consecutive quarterly record revenues in the first half of fiscal 2022 ended March 31, 2022.”

Devin Molina, a social sciences professor at Bronx Community College, said he supports CUNY’s push to give students and staff testing options, but questioned why the university doesn’t let people get tested outside of campus.

“We have to go to a CUNY testing site. We can’t go to a private site. We can’t do our home test, except, which is really interesting. If we test positive on our own if we are feeling ill and take a test at home, we can report that.”

Molina continued: “We have folks who are not, as far as we know, carrying the virus or infected or sick or anything like that who are being subjected to this random testing… with only one vendor,” said Molina. “And I have to wonder, is there some sort of monetary reason for this?”  

At this point in the pandemic, Tamar Rothenberg, chair of the Bronx Community College history department, says the testing program is just an extra layer of bureaucratic difficulty, with a design that doesn’t account for students who commute to campus and often juggle pressing responsibilities like jobs and parenting. 

“It’s disruptive. It has nothing to do with anybody getting sick or feeling sick,” she said. 

Rothenberg said that the testing system “really hit us” this semester after Rosh Hashanah, as class cancellations threw schedules out of whack and made people more likely to miss their 14-day testing windows. 

“It’s counterproductive to encouraging retention” at a time when enrollment is already declining, said Rothenberg. “People come to a community college because it fits in with their busy lives.” 

Editor’s Note: Due to an editing error, this story previously said that Applied DNA’s $35 million contract with CUNY had been renewed for a second year for an additional $35 million. In fact, the original contract was extended to cover a second year at no additional cost. 

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