COVID-19 Testing Procedures

COVID-19 Testing Procedures


To provide an additional layer of safety to the ongoing public health and preventive efforts, Teachers College, Columbia University requires an initial single COVID-19 PCR diagnostic test (nasal swab) of all faculty, staff, and students who are returning to campus per NYS COVID-19 Guidance for Higher Education. Testing is not required for essential staff who have been consistently working on campus prior to August 1st.

The goal of initial testing for individuals returning to campus is to estimate the prevalence of infection among those individuals. Initial testing helps us compare the prevalence among those newly returning to campus to overall prevalence in NYC, in order to ensure all individuals accessing campus have not recently tested positive for the coronavirus (COVID-19). Teachers College will also continue to evaluate and adjust our testing strategy going forward, beyond the initial requirement as part of our first reopening plan.

It is important to keep in mind that, in addition to testing, health measures to prevent spread of the virus such as face coverings, physical distancing, hand hygiene, and other non-pharmaceutical interventions have been shown to be effective in prevention of transmission of the virus, from both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals. These actions are the most important preventive measures our community can take, and more information about the measures that all individuals entering campus are required to comply with can be found here:

COVID-19 Testing Requirement

Resident Students: Students who will reside in Teachers College campus housing will be provided testing through the Columbia Health Testing Program. All residential students are required to undergo a COVID-19 nasal swab test within 24 hours of arrival in the residence hall. There is an initial (gateway) test and a required second test 14 days later. There may also be random sample testing during the semester. See section below on how to get a test.

Non-Resident Students: All non-resident students who are returning to campus on or after August 24th are expected to have a COVID-19 PCR test within the 14 days prior to your return to campus. A negative test result is required prior to return to campus. There will be no additional testing requirement for non-resident students at this time. 

Test results (positive and negative) for non-resident students must be submitted to: COVIDStudentTesting@tc.columbia.edu

Faculty and Staff: All faculty and staff who are returning to campus on or after August 24th are expected to have a COVID-19 PCR test within the 14 days prior to your return to campus. A negative test result is required prior to return to campus. There will be no additional testing requirement for employees at this time. 

All employees who have been consistently working on campus prior to August 1st are not required to have a COVID-19 test. 

Test results (positive & negative) for Faculty and Staff must be submitted to: COVIDtesting@tc.columbia.edu

How to Get a Test

Resident Students

  • Testing for resident students begins on Monday, August 17, 2020. To schedule your required COVID-19 gateway test within 24 hours of your move-in, please visit  secure.health.columbia.edu
  • CU recommends students schedule their test in advance, to ensure all students are able to secure an appointment within 24 hours of their scheduled move in date
  • Appointments are being continually added so if your first choice is not available, please check again in a day or two. Students that have challenges with scheduling should email covidtesttrace@columbia.edu.
  • All resident students will be required to receive an initial gateway test within 24 hours of their move in date
  • TC students will be permitted to enter Lerner Hall with their TC IDs. CU will have their names on the list. Students will be greeted by CU personnel who is in charge of admitting them into Lerner Hall for the testing
  • To schedule your required COVID-19 gateway test within 24 hours of your move-in, please visit secure.health.columbia.edu
  • 5% of all resident students will be randomly selected each week to be tested (CU students are also required to participate in the weekly random sampling test).
  • Residential Services and Student Affairs will work together to provide the list of students chosen for the random sampling on behalf of TC, and CU will then notify selected students that they were chosen.
  • CU will conduct contact tracing for any positive cases identified through the CU testing program. CU is aware that TC also has an internal contact tracing program and confirmed that this does not present any conflict.

Non-Resident Students, Staff and Faculty

You may go to any test site operated by local governments, private companies including pharmacies and medical practices or not-for-profit organizations in your area. Testing will be free of charge at NYS testing sites or covered by your health insurance provider if you have a physician’s referral, had exposure to COVID-19 or are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, or if a health screening determines you should be tested.

You are advised to check with the testing site and your insurer in advance of being tested to confirm if you will be responsible for any fees associated with your test.

Testing is free to all eligible New Yorkers as ordered by a health care provider or by calling the NYS COVID-19 hotline at 1-888-364-3065. If you visit a test site run by New York State, there is currently no charge for your COVID-19 test:

Click Here to search for a NY testing site in near you

Free Walk-in testing locations in NYC:

NYC Mobile Testing Units City MD | NYC Health and Hospitals

Click Here to search for a NJ testing site near you.

Click Here to search for a CT testing site near you.

If you are located outside of the Tri-State-area you can visit your state or local health department’s website to look for the latest local information on testing.

Processing of COVID-19 Test Results

Departments will provide lists of their returning staff and students for tracking purposes. 

The Office of Human Resources and the Office of Student Health & Wellness division in the Office of Student Affairs will track testing results and notify the Office of Environmental Health & Safety (EHS) of any positive results. Once EHS is informed of a positive result, they will assess the level of contact on campus and advise if additional individuals need to be quarantined. 

Positive Test Results:

Students: A student who receives a positive test result will be contacted by a representative of the Office of Student Health and Wellness within the Student Affairs division, to answer questions and offer support related to courses, coordination with faculty, and other supports as needed. 

Faculty & Staff: An employee who receives a positive test result will be directed to notify their supervisor that they are unable to come to work. An employee is not required to share the reason for their absence. 

Frequently Asked Questions

SARS-CoV-2 is the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 illness.

There are two different types of tests for COVID-19, one determines whether you have it now (being the time the test was collected) and the other determines if you have had it at some point in the past.

To detect a COVID-19 infection now, a nasopharyngeal (NP) or nasal swab is used to detect the RNA of the COVID-19 virus.

To detect that an infection occurred at some point in the past, a serology blood test is done to detect antibodies to COVID-19.

In general, it takes a lab about 24 to 72 hours to run the test, though some testing sites can take up to 7-10 days for the patient to receive the test result. How quickly you receive the results will differ based on the testing site and location. We encourage you to verify the average wait time of a COVID-19 test result with each testing site.

To do the NP or nasal test to detect COVID-19 virus or parts of the virus, a sterile, small, cotton-tipped swab is gently passed into the nose back to the nasopharynx or the anterior part of the nose (in the case of nasal swabs) to obtain respiratory tract secretions. It is rotated, removed, and placed in a viral transport media and sent to the clinical microbiology laboratories.

PCR assays are performed on the NP or nasal swab specimens to detect the COVID-19 viral genetic material (RNA). PCR assays can detect live virus, dead virus, or fragments of virus.

The NP or nasal swab PCR test is currently recommended for two groups, although anyone can request a test.

  • Individuals with symptoms to see if their symptoms are from COVID-19. Symptoms of COVID-19 include documented fever or fever to touch, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, chills or shaking chills, congestion/runny nose, diarrhea, alterations of taste, or loss of smell.
  • Individuals without symptoms who have had close contact with someone with laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 or with symptoms consistent with COVID-19. 

A positive PCR test from an individual with symptoms means that a person has COVID-19 and can infect others. These individuals need to be isolated at home. In order to return to work, all of the following criteria must be met:

  • At least 14 days have passed since the onset of symptoms
  • At least 72 hours have passed without fever without the use of antipyretic medications, e.g., acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
  • Marked improvement in symptoms
  • Employees must be evaluated by a health care provider and present a fit-for-duty certificate to the Office of Human Resources.

*Note: When these individuals return to work, they need to continue to use all protective measures against COVID-19 (e.g., use of face covering, adherence to physical distancing) because we do not know yet if someone can be re-infected with COVID-19.

The PCR test can detect both live and dead virus, or viral RNA fragments. A positive PCR result in someone without symptoms could mean any of the following:

  • A person has recovered from the virus, but is still shedding the virus and could transmit COVID-19 to others.
  • A person has recovered from COVID-19 but the PCR is detecting dead virus or viral RNA fragments, and COVID-19 cannot be transmitted to others.
  • A person is pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic, meaning they may or may not develop symptoms, but are shedding the virus. Asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic people who are PCR-positive can sometimes transmit COVID-19 to others, although less frequently than those with symptoms.

This is why asymptomatic individuals who are COVID-19-positive will need to self-isolate at home. They can return to work as long as they remain symptom free after 14 days have passed since the date that their NP or nasal swab was obtained. The NP of the nasal swab does not need to be repeated before the individual can return to work.

Individuals with positive PCR tests should obtain medical clearance and guidance on how to protect their close contacts from their health care provider.

*Note: When these individuals return to work, they need to continue to use all protective measures against COVID-19 because we do not know yet if someone can be re-infected with COVID-19.

No, individuals can return to work as described above. No further PCR testing is required to return to work.

  • Contact health provider to seek advice and care
  • Before seeking care, an individual should call their provider to help coordinate care.
  • Individuals should put a face mask on before entering a healthcare facility.
  • Call 911 if there is a medical emergency like significant shortness of breath.

People with COVID-19-like symptoms can have a negative test for several reasons.

  • A negative test from an individual who previously had symptoms and is now well may mean that a person has cleared the virus and can’t spread the virus to others.
  • This may be a false negative test meaning that the person does have COVID-19, but that the PCR test did not detect the virus because the level of viral RNA was below the limit of detection. Levels of viral RNA are usually highest in the first 5 days of illness.
  • False negative tests can also occur due to inadequate or improper NP or nasal swab collection or problems in the transport of the specimen.
  • Sometimes people with symptoms can have a negative test because they have other reasons for their symptoms such as other respiratory viruses, seasonal allergies or asthma.

It is highly likely that a person without symptoms with a negative NP or nasal PCR test does not have COVID-19 at this point in time. These individuals should observe all preventive measures and self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19.

If an individual has a negative NP or nasal PCR test result but has had close contact with a person who is known to be positive, this individual should self-quarantine and continue to self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19 for 14 days from the time of exposure as there is continued risk of transmission.

Yes. The asymptomatic individual can continue to work while waiting for their test result. They should continue to physically distance and wear a face covering according to University policy. If asymptomatic individuals with close contact of a COVID-19 case get tested, such individuals should self-quarantine for 14 days from the time of exposure.

Occasionally a person will have an indeterminate NP PCR test result. This is considered a positive result and represents a low level of virus. It does NOT need to be repeated.  The individual with an indeterminate result should follow the guidance described above for a positive test result.

Occasionally, a person will have an invalid NP PCR test result, which is the result of excessive mucus in the sample, which interferes with the test. This person SHOULD have a repeat NP swab sent for COVID-19 testing.

The current COVID-19 testing strategy at Teachers College includes the following:

  • Individuals with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 and those with history of contact with a presumed or confirmed COVID-19 case are strongly encouraged to test for SARS-CoV-2.
  • Individuals who will be newly returning to campus as of August 24 are required to have initial COVID-19 testing prior to the return to campus, received on August 10 or later. The goal of initial testing for individuals newly returning to campus is to estimate the prevalence of infection among those individuals. Initial testing will help us estimate prevalence among those newly returning to campus and how that compares to prevalence in NYC. It will also assist in design of further testing strategies.  We will continue to evaluate and adjust the testing strategy going forward.
  • Essential staff who have been consistently on campus since August 1 are not required to get COVID-19 testing. These individuals have been in the New York City area, which has experienced a substantial decrease in burden of COVID-19 cases. However, such individuals can obtain COVID-19 testing, if they desire to do so.

It should be noted that public health measures such as consistent face covering, physical distancing, hand washing, staying home when sick among others, remain the most important measures for prevention of transmission of COVID-19. The information provided herein is based on current knowledge and is subject to change as new information becomes available.

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