Ithaca campus goes to red alert level

Since our post on Saturday, our surveillance tests have continued to identify the rapid spread of COVID-19 among our student body. While the number of faculty and staff cases currently remains low, last night our COVID-19 testing lab team identified evidence of the highly contagious variant of Omicron in a significant number of student samples. Monday positives. Consequently, and out of excess of caution, the university is moving towards Red alert level and the announcement of a number of immediate actions, described below.

I want to clarify that our testimony from Omicron is preliminary. PCR testing has identified its mark (the so-called S gene drop) in a substantial number of virus samples. While we will have to wait for confirmatory sequencing information to be sure the source is Omicron, we are proceeding as if it is.

While there is still a lot of unknowns about the Omicron variant, it appears to be significantly more heritable than Delta and other variants. There is some evidence (although far from certain) that it usually causes milder cases, especially in people who have been vaccinated. However, when you have high transmissibility you are going to have a very high number of cases, and so even with lower severe disease rates, outbreaks need to be taken seriously.

So, we need to do what we can to limit the spread, even if we are only a few days away from the end of the semester. This is why we are going to the red alert level, and with this movement:

Academic orientation:

  • All final exams will be taken in online format from noon on Tuesday, December 14. Examinations that have already been moved to an online format will proceed as planned, including today’s exams. Some exams still scheduled in person may be able to switch immediately to an online modality; others may need to be reprogrammed to give teachers time to pivot. Be vigilant about checking for email updates from your faculty. More details about the exams will be posted on the academic policies section on the COVID-19 website as it becomes available.

Cancellations of events and impacts on campus:

  • All university activities involving undergraduates (including events and social gatherings) and all university sponsored events (including winter celebrations) are canceled.
  • The December 18 recognition ceremony for December graduates has been canceled.
  • Students using Cornell Dining are strongly encouraged to ‘grab and go’; if you need to eat nearby, please do it remotely.
  • Libraries are closed to students.
  • Sunday track and field competitions are canceled. Fitness centers and gymnasiums are closed to students.
  • Offices and laboratories remain open, but undergraduates should not participate in any work-study or laboratory work.

Tips for student travel and public health on campus:

  • Students who have tested negative in the last 48 hours (Saturday or Sunday) and who wish to leave the campus are invited to do so. Please wear a mask at all times while traveling, take a COVID-19 test at your destination, and quarantine yourself until you receive your result.
  • All students must complete their Departure checklist before leaving campus.
  • Any student who has not tested negative within the past 48 hours should get further testing as soon as possible. Schedule your test on www.dailycheck.cornell.edu. Students are encouraged to stay in Ithaca, in their residences, until their test results are received, and greatly limit interactions with others during this time. More information on exit tests, how to get results and extended appointment times is available in the Daily check.
  • We will continue to assist our on-campus residential students who have tested positive to safely self-isolate for the required 10 day period until they receive approval from the Tompkins County Department of Health for travel safely.
  • Visitors and guests are not permitted on campus, with the exception of those who collect students for the break. In this case, we ask that you remain masked at all times while you are briefly on campus.
  • Students should avoid non-essential contact with others and increase their vigilance by wearing a mask, standing back and washing their hands. Right now, over 97% of our student body is virus free and we want everyone to be able to enjoy a healthy winter vacation with family and friends.

Staff and teachers:

  • Mandatory surveillance testing will continue as normal for all currently enrolled employees. Additional tests will continue to be available to all employees.

While I want to reassure that to date we have not seen serious illness in any of our infected students, we have a role to play in reducing the spread of the disease throughout the community. The fact that we have not experienced serious illness among our student body may lead some to wonder why we are imposing such severe measures. So let me share the underlying calculations: let’s consider a variant, let’s call it A, in which each person infects two others on average, and which causes severe illness in 1% of cases. After ten iterations of transmission, you will have approximately 1,000 cases and 10 cases of severe illness. Now consider variant B, which is twice as contagious, so each person infects four more on average, but which causes serious illness only a tenth more often, or in only 0.1% of cases. Left unchecked, over the same ten iterations of transmission, with variant B, you will have over a million cases and about 1,000 people with severe disease. Of course, other factors come into play, including the fact that the virus will “run out” of people to infect in any community, but the point is that higher transmissibility leads to exponential growth, which l outweighs the linear percentage decrease in severe cases. . To avoid this type of situation, it is imperative not to let such infections go unchecked, but to take measures that limit transmission.

It is obviously extremely disheartening to have to take these steps. However, since the start of the pandemic, our commitment has been to follow the science and do all we can to protect the health of our faculty, staff and students.

We have faced many challenges together over the past few months. I am confident that we can once again meet this current challenge so that we can all take a well-deserved break.


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