Local students, organizations push Princeton University to provide additional COVID-19 resources

Photo courtesy of Nymisha Nimmagadda
Demonstration at Princeton University on Feb. 13.

In mid-February, Princeton University students and Princeton community members gathered on campus to urge that the university share its COVID-19 resources.

Designed to make the community voice a central focus at the demonstration on Feb. 13, groups such as Princeton Mutual Aid (PMA), Princeton Anti Austerity Coalition (PAAC), Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU) and Unidad Latina En Acción (ULA) expressed demands for further university resources to be expanded or made available to Princeton community residents and surrounding municipalities.

Those demands included the expansion of free COVID-19 testing to residents of Princeton, which would include the undocumented, underinsured and uninsured residents; provide free COVID-19 vaccinations to residents of Princeton and neighboring municipalities (Plainsboro, Lawrence, West Windsor, and Montgomery); and equal access to COVID-19 testing contact tracing, vaccination, and health benefits for contract workers as for full-time employees.

Another demonstration between the local groups and organizations has not been announced, but Nymisha Nimmagadda of PMA said this month’s protest is not a one-and-done occurrence.

“We will have a call soon to plan next steps. One of those next steps include working to engage university administrators in a conversation on some of our demands,” she added. “For PMA we have a public health sub group that is working on some of the biggest health needs within the community and where we can work collaboratively as a community in supporting them.”

One of the recurring points from the community that PMA had been hearing general concerns of COVID-19 and limited access to resources.

“Also as we heard undergrads were coming back there was general concern in the community about what that meant in exposure to COVID-19. That kind of sparked the conversation for PMA and wanting to do something,” Nimmagadda said. “We had not had much communication or positive feed back from the university, so we happened to touch base with other organizations in town that were working on similar concerns and areas.”

That would lead to an action group that formed between the various organizations, which led to organizing of the protest earlier this month.

“From PMA’s point of view, we want the university to expand testing and vaccinations to town and neighboring municipalities. We want them to provide more support regarding contract tracing efforts by the municipality and Princeton Health Department,” Nimmagadda added. “Those are the key points for PMA. It is really important that large institutions the size of Princeton that have their endowment take responsibility and is not unprecedented.”

She spotlighted University of California, Davis, Tufts University and University of Wisconsin as universities that have provided COVID-19 resources to their communities.

Deputy Princeton University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss pointed to the university being an educational institution first and not a hospital, a health care provider, or a commercial clinical lab.

“And unlike many of its peers, it does not have a medical school, or a school of public health. Princeton focuses on teaching and research and created a clinical testing lab so it can pursue its fundamental mission despite the pandemic,” he said. “Princeton can — and is — making a difference during this pandemic through its research and teaching, not by becoming a health care provider.”

Hotchkiss added that it is simply not true that the university can simply flip a switch and provide public health resources to tens of thousands of additional people.

The university, since establishing an on-campus laboratory, has been conducting diagnostic testing for its students, faculty and staff.

“It is important to note that the university’s limited medical infrastructure was designed primarily to provide care for university students on campus,” Hotchkiss said. “Given those limitations, the additional demands of operating a testing program for the university community — from distributing test kits to tracking results and many steps in between — have put a tremendous strain on the dedicated staff of University Health Services and staff across the university who are assisting with the program.”

Additionally, regarding vaccinations, the university has not received any vaccine and does not know when it will, but does anticipate that when they do the university will have enough for undergrads, grad students, faculty, staff and retirees, and certain affiliated staff.

“But that has not stopped the university from nonetheless collaborating with the local officials with regard to vaccines, storing doses in our specialized cold storage facilities, hosting community clinics on campus because we have suitable space for what are somewhat complicated events, and assisting with the staffing of these clinics,” Hotchkiss said.