Just a few days before the end of the semester, Cornell University is shutting down its campus and moving final exams online because of a recent surge in COVID-19 cases among its overwhelmingly vaccinated student population.
In a message released Tuesday, Cornell President Martha E. Pollack told the campus community that the university’s surveillance testing “has continued to identify the rapid spread of COVID-19” among students.
According to the Ivy League school’s website, 97 percent of the overall population on the Ithaca, New York campus has been fully vaccinated. That includes 100 percent of professional faculty, 93 percent of other employees, and 99 percent of undergraduate students. As of Dec. 12, there are 469 active student cases, including 214 newly confirmed positives.
“While faculty and staff case numbers currently remain low, just last evening our COVID-19 testing lab team identified evidence of the highly contagious Omicron variant in a significant number of Monday’s positive student samples,” Pollack said, adding that the university now moves to “alert level red,” which indicates high risk, for the first time since the early days of the pandemic.
Pollack also emphasized that there is only preliminary evidence of Omicron’s presence on the Cornell campus, as PCR testing has identified the variant’s characteristic “S-gene dropout” in a substantial number of virus samples. That being said, the university is “proceeding as if it is” while awaiting genome sequencing information that can confirm whether the source is Omicron.
In an effort to curb the spread of what could be Omicron, which appears to be significantly more transmissible but generally causes milder symptoms compared to other variants, Cornell is going to facilitate a number of changes. All university activities involving undergraduates and all university-sponsored events, including the Dec. 18 graduation ceremony, will be canceled. Libraries and gyms will be closed. Students are also advised to get a negative COVID-19 test result before any travel. Visitors and guests are not allowed on campus, except those coming to pick up students for break.
“Any student who has not tested negative in the past 48 hours should get a supplemental test as soon as possible,” Pollack wrote. “Students are encouraged to stay in Ithaca, in their residences, until their test results are received, and severely limit interactions with others during that time.”
When it comes to the finals, Pollack said all final exams will move to an online format, and that students should look to their professors as they make changes, as many may need to reschedule in accordance with the changes.
In a previous message sent out on Monday, Pollack said the university has suspended all classes, and that students have until March 29 to move out, except international students who cannot return home. Undergraduate students and professional master’s students with research or other projects will not be able to continue them on campus.
Prior to the Monday and Tuesday announcements, Cornell had already imposed some strict measures in hope of limiting the spread of the virus. The university requires everyone to wear a mask indoors at all times, regardless of their vaccination status, unless when eating or drinking or being alone in a private space like an office or a dorm room. Unvaccinated students are also required to maintain a 6-foot physical distance with others whenever possible.
As of Dec. 12, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office has reported 38 confirmed Omicron cases across the state, including two in Tompkin County, where Cornell University is seated.