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Some say testing, VaxTrax inadequate

With the influx of new and returning students and faculty at NMSU, the Aggie Health and Wellness Center’s limitations are glaring. At the center of the problem is little to no availability for testing. Many students and staff members have had trouble scheduling appointments, and there appears to be limited testing capacity due to staffing and funding shortages.

Students and faculty have voiced their concerns since the beginning of October, right after the VaxTrax upload requirements were rolled out across all NMSU campuses.

The Aggie Health and Wellness Center entrance remains closed to walk-ins due to COVID Wednesday morning, Nov. 3. Some members of the NMSU campus community have criticized the AHWC for its apparent lack of coronavirus testing capacity and other alleged inadequacies. (Photo by Cielo Rodriguez/Kokopelli)

Student Jasper Atwater is one of those concerned. Atwater is currently a junior and a double-major in biology and microbiology, with minors in human biology and molecular biology. 

“Students on this campus have had loved ones die because of the poor implementation of COVID restrictions,” Atwater said.

Others on campus have shared similar sentiments, including reports of difficulty scheduling COVID tests.

Lori McKee, the former executive director of the Aggie Health and Wellness Center who officially retired from NMSU last week, indicated some of the scheduling delays may be due to personal protective equipment shortages. “There are 32 slots for testing daily. Tests are done from 8:30-9:30 a.m. to conserve PPE supplies as all staff must have full personal protective equipment on for testing,” McKee said.

Jon Webster is the NMSU COVID-19 project manager who works directly out of the chancellor’s office. He has brought current COVID prevention and response teams together at NMSU.

Webster said if there is a campus outbreak or if there is a needed emergency response on campus, the Aggie Health and Wellness Center would be responsible for taking action. Webster said he did not know the precise number of tests available at the center, only that the AHWC is limited in testing capacity and staffing. 

Despite these issues, McKee said she is confident that the AHWC is running smoothly with its current procedures and that the program is “meeting the needs of NMSU.”

Atwater said he spoke with McKee multiple times over his concerns about what he perceives as a failure to adequately protect the campus community.  “As Lori McKee told me, ‘We are severely understaffed with our so few nurses,’ which is a pitiful statement to hear from an MBA recipient who operates at a university with a college of nursing,” Atwater said. “[AHWC has] a lot of tools at their disposal but aren’t aiming to do anything besides have neutrality and wait to see how the cards play out.”

The Aggie Health and Wellness Center is one of only two options available on campus for students and staff to receive a free COVID test, Pfizer vaccine or booster. According to both McKee and Webster, the only other option for testing services on campus is Curative. Sponsored by the New Mexico Department of Health, Curative is a state-funded program which only began testing on the main NMSU campus at the beginning of October 2021.

McKee acknowledged there is little to no internal funding for testing at the AHWC. “There is no funding allocated for testing. All testing is set up with collaborative agreements with the New Mexico Department of Health and Curative,” she said.

The Curative tests are free, although some students may need insurance coverage. Webster said the Curative tests are “less invasive and are monitored by a health professional while the student or person with symptoms or asymptomatic swabs themselves.” 

According to the FDA, the risk of “false negatives” from tests that are administered at home or that are self-administered are higher than those administered by health care professionals. 

Additionally, according to the CDC, a “robust and responsive testing infrastructure” is essential to stopping the spread of the virus itself, as well as facilitating further studies for vaccines that are essential for science and virology. 

McKee said the best way for the university to move forward while fighting the virus is for students to get vaccinated instead of creating more options for testing. “It is not the university’s responsibility to provide testing.  Those students who are fully vaccinated need only to load their immunization card to VaxTrax and the process is complete,” McKee said. 

Atwater questioned McKee’s public health qualifications, and also said there appears to be a lack of accountability surrounding on-campus testing and vaccination protocols.

“Lori McKee, as well as many members in the administration under President Floros are making health decisions without any degrees in health,” Atwater said.

Floros recently received a vote of no confidence from faculty members and is currently under investigation by the NMSU Board of Regents concerning an 18-page document sponsored by eight faculty senators. The document contains collected data and information on a litany of subjects including campus safety concerns, misappropriation of funds and unethical hiring practices.

According to Webster, there are only two individuals working directly out of the Dean of Students’ office to process VaxTrax uploads, which includes proof of weekly testing. 

Atwater points to this and a perceived lack of communication as yet another reason for more widespread concerns about COVID safety among students on campus. “So far, we have not heard much about how the uploading has been going as far as the executive director actually reporting anything directly to student life,” Atwater said.

Atwater’s biggest fear is that campus administrators are already becoming tired and not being as proactive as they should be with the ongoing state of the pandemic, with no end in sight just yet. 

“My fear of this is based on how [university administrators] are operating on lackluster systems and rely on shortcuts to keep funds moving along,” Atwater said. “I have seen the games, the tailgates, and the events on campus where masks aren’t mandatory, and neither is the six-foot rule the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated is still in effect.”

“The bastardized classroom operations have also been an error on their plate with how divisive the campus has been and the lengthy period of time it took for them to even remove the business law professor who was anti-masking and anti-vaxxing,” Atwater added.

College campuses across the country are facing a similar fight against the deadly coronavirus. Different institutions have several protocols for vaccinations, tests and masks with many students returning for in-person classes for the 2021-2022 semesters. 

COVID-19 cases are being monitored at most university campuses to reduce the spread of the virus. COVID cases increased 65% across all U.S. colleges and universities during the first five months of 2021, according to survey data compiled by the New York Times.

In New Mexico, COVID cases and hospitalizations have been trending upward at least since September 2021. The current positivity rate in Doña County is 11.13% with those in the 20-29 age group accounting for the most number of active cases countywide as of Nov. 1, 2021. 

According to NMSU’s own COVID tracking dashboard, the current number of reported active cases on all NMSU campuses is 106 as of Nov. 5, 2021. The main campus in Las Cruces accounts for 90 of those cases. The cumulative NMSU campus case total dating back to August 2020 is 917 as of Nov. 5, 2021. 

Other universities around the state including the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, have weekly testing and vaccination requirements as well. UNM also maintains a COVID tracking dashboard, but unlike the NMSU dashboard, UNM’s dashboard shows vaccination totals. As of Nov. 5, approximately 99% of faculty, 95% of staff members, and 92% of students at UNM are fully vaccinated.

Approximately 85% of faculty, staff and students at NMSU have submitted proof of vaccination as of Oct. 27, according to data released by the NMSU News and Media Relations office. 

UTEP currently has no vaccination, testing or mask requirements, but does offer free on-campus testing services. UTEP’s COVID tracking dashboard was taken offline in July 2021, less than one year after it was launched in September 2020. 

President Floros will host a town hall webinar at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 9, which will feature an update from the NMSU Pandemic Action Team, led by Vice Chancellor Ruth Johnston. Additional guests will include Jon Webster and Dr. Judi Voelz from the AHWC. The town hall also will serve as an opportunity to introduce Amanda Blair, the new interim executive director of the AHWC. 

For more stories from this exclusive series on COVID safety at NMSU, click on the links below:

NMSU staff, students concerned campus may be unsafe

Sodexo employees allegedly encouraged to ignore COVID safety protocols

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