Columbia Health Senior Vice President Melanie Bernitz summarized recent additions to Columbia’s raft of pandemic policies, including the continuation of the indoor mask mandate, in a single email to the student body.   

On Wednesday afternoon, Senior Vice President for Columbia Health Melanie Bernitz formalized the continuation of certain public health measures which were enacted prior to the 2020-2021 academic year, as well as the introduction of new measures as campus population expands to levels not seen since March 2020 in an email to students. While Bernitz described Columbia as a “near-vaccinated campus” with only limited exemptions to vaccination based on medical and religious criteria, several policies which she listed apply to both vaccinated and unvaccinated students. The email is provided in full below.

Of note is the prolonging of the University’s indoor mask mandate “until further notice” for anyone who enters campus buildings, regardless of vaccination status. Additionally, all students must now get tested for COVID-19 at the University’s testing center if they are selected under the random surveillance program or if they receive notice that the virus which causes COVID-19 is present in the wastewater of their residence hall. Bernitz specified that students selected for random testing will be provided with a range of dates within which they must be swabbed; in the event of a wastewater viral spike, students must get tested within 1 business day of the notice. 

Bernitz also warned students not to make a testing appointment through the patient portal if they are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and to instead call Columbia Medical Services at (212) 854-7426 to get tested. Bernitz also offered the option of weekly testing throughout the month of September for all students who wish to do so. 

Bernitz framed the new and continued public health measures as potentially frustrating in the face of optimistic community expectations for the fall; however, she also said, “[Columbia’s decision] to welcome the community back to campus at all this year” was contingent on students following public health guidelines. 

Email from Senior Vice President for Columbia Health Melanie Bernitz sent to Columbia students on Wednesday, August 18 at 4:42 pm EST:

Dear Students,

Columbia is moving into the Fall term and we are excited to see more and more students arriving on campus. As the University continues to monitor the local, national, and international COVID-19 situation, we have updated the protocols shared earlier this summer to align with evolving public health guidelines to support the health and safety of our community.

Even with a near-fully vaccinated campus, the risks presented by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the dominant, more transmissible, Delta variant compel us to maintain an abundance of caution. Remember that starting September 9, if you do not have an approved exemption or have not completed your vaccination course, you are not allowed to access campus.

Below are some of the key updates to our campus public health policies for you to keep top of mind as you come to campus:

  1. All individuals, vaccinated and unvaccinated, must continue to wear a face covering indoors, until further notice. Unvaccinated individuals must wear a face covering indoors and outdoors at all times.
  2. For those who have not yet completed a COVID-19 gateway PCR test since January 1, 2021, schedule a gateway test at a Columbia testing site before September 9. This graphic will help you determine your next steps if you need to get a gateway test.
  3. If you have not yet completed vaccination, get the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as you can. In the United States, vaccines are widely available. Find a site in New York City, including at Columbia.
  4. If you are unvaccinated and arriving from outside of the United States, you must quarantine upon entry to the United States and before accessing campus. You must participate in mandatory weekly testing until you achieve full vaccination status (i.e., two weeks after last dose of vaccine).
  5. If you are unvaccinated (and have received a religious or medical exemption) and are arriving from a domestic location, you must quarantine until you receive the results of your gateway test.

Throughout the rest of the Fall term, please take note of the items below: 

  1. Participate in weekly mandatory testing if unvaccinated with approved vaccination exemption until further notice.
  2. Participate in surveillance testing if selected as part of the random sample, regardless of vaccination status. You will be informed by email if you are selected and must get tested in the date range included in the email.
  3. Students who live in a residential building where a wastewater spike of SARS-CoV2 is detected must test at the University within 1 business day of notification.
  4. If you develop any symptoms, do NOT schedule an appointment via the Patient Portal. Please call Columbia Health Medical Services at 212-854-7426 to arrange for a test.
  5. Supplementary COVID-19 testing is available in the following scenarios, outside of the mandatory testing requirements listed above:
    • if you are not required to test weekly, but would like to test, you may do so up to once a week during the month of September;
    • if you are unvaccinated and returning from an international location, you must test between days 3-5 after arrival;
    • if you are going on University-approved travel (graduate students only, University travel is suspended for undergraduates), you may test 1-3 days before you depart and 3-5 days after you return; and
    • if you are identified as a close contact of a confirmed COVID-19 case, you are recommended to test 3 to 5 days after contact.
  6. Keep abreast of restrictions on outside visitors and certain types of gatherings throughout the fall term.
  7. Continue to practice essential prevention hygiene: Aside from wearing a face covering and physical distancing (if required), continue to frequently hand wash/sanitize, cough/sneeze into your elbow, stay home if you’re sick, and avoid large crowds. Also, get your required flu shot this fall—Columbia Health will be providing no-cost flu shots on campus in October.

Reach out to Columbia Health for support wherever you may find yourself at this moment, or once you arrive at Columbia. Care for your health by taking advantage of medical and mental health telehealth services, or in-person medical appointments. Visit the Coping Tools webpage for resources for coping with stress, anxiety, and other concerns due to COVID-19. In addition to individual virtual counseling sessions, Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) is offering virtual support spaces open to students anywhere. 

As I mentioned, Columbia’s policies evolve as the situation and public health guidelines change along with them. Visit the University COVID-19 website to stay updated about COVID-19 and the Columbia community.

While we were all looking forward to a return to campus that is as close to normal as the fall of 2019, the shifting realities of this pandemic requires us to be agile and pivot quickly if we are to keep Columbia healthy. We thank you for your patience and resilience as we continue to navigate these ups and downs together. That we are able to welcome the community back to campus at all this year is due to your commitment to yourself and to each other to stay safe.

I look forward to seeing you on campus very soon!

With care for our community,

Melanie Bernitz, MD, MPH

Senior Vice President, Columbia Health      

Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine (in the Center for Family and Community Medicine)

Edit 8/23/21 at 6:12 PM EST: A previous version of this post misstated Dr. Bernitz’s title. Bwog has corrected the error.

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