COVID-19 Update: Moving to alert level red, changes to exams

Dear Ithaca campus community,

Since our Saturday message, our surveillance testing has continued to identify the rapid spread of COVID-19 among our student population. 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. As a result, and out of an abundance of caution, the university is moving to Alert Level Red and announcing a number of immediate measures, outlined below.

I want to make clear that our evidence of Omicron is preliminary. PCR testing has identified its hallmark (the so-called S-gene dropout) in a substantial number of virus samples. While we must await confirmatory sequencing information to be sure that the source is Omicron, we are proceeding as if it is.

While there is still much that is not known about the Omicron variant, it appears to be significantly more transmissible than Delta and other variants. There is some evidence (though far from certain) that it generally causes milder cases, particularly among vaccinated individuals. However, when you have high transmissibility, you’re going to have very high numbers of cases, and so even with lower rates of serious illness, outbreaks must be taken seriously.

Thus, we need to do what we can to limit further spread, even though we are just a few days away from the end of the semester. That is why we are moving to Alert Level Red, and with that move:

Academic guidance:

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

Event cancellations and campus impacts:

  • 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 is canceled.
  • Students utilizing Cornell Dining are strongly encouraged to “grab-and-go”; if you must eat near others, please do so at a distance.
  • Libraries are closed to students.
  • Athletics competitions on Sunday are canceled. Fitness centers and gyms are closed to students.
  • Offices and labs remain open, but undergraduate students should not participate in any work-study or lab work.

Student travel and campus public health guidance:

  • Students who have tested negative within the past 48 hours (Saturday or Sunday) and wish to leave campus are welcome to do so. Please wear a mask at all times during travel, take a COVID-19 test at your destination, and self-quarantine until you receive your result.
  • All students must complete their Departure Checklist prior to leaving campus.
  • Any student who has not tested negative in the past 48 hours should get a supplemental test as soon as possible. Schedule your test at 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. More information about departure testing, how to get results, and extended appointment hours is available in the Daily Check.
  • We will continue to assist our on-campus residential students who have tested positive in safely isolating for the required 10-day duration until they receive approval from the Tompkins County Health Department to travel safely.
  • Visitors and guests are not allowed on campus, with the exception of those picking up students for break. In that case, we ask that you remain continuously masked while briefly on campus.
  • Students should avoid nonessential contact with others and increase their vigilance with mask-wearing, distancing, and hand washing. At present, over 97% of our student body is free of the virus and we want everyone to be able to enjoy a healthy winter break with family and friends.

Staff and faculty:

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

While I want to provide reassurance that, to date, we have not seen severe illness in any of our infected students, we do have a role to play in reducing the spread of the disease in the broader community. The fact that we have not experienced severe illness among our student population may lead some to ask why we are imposing such serious steps. So let me share the underlying math: Consider one variant, let’s call it A, in which each person infects two others on average, and which causes serious illness in 1% of cases. After ten iterations of transmission, you’ll have about 1,000 cases, and 10 instances of serious illness. Now consider variant B, which is twice as infectious, so each person infects four others on average, but which causes serious illness only one-tenth as often, i.e., in only 0.1% of cases. Unchecked, over the same ten iterations of transmission, with variant B you’ll have more than a million cases, and about 1,000 individuals with serious illness. 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 outweighs the linear decrease in percent of severe cases. To avoid this type of situation, it is imperative not to let such infections run unchecked, but to take steps that limit transmission.

It is obviously extremely dispiriting 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 last many months. I am confident that we can once again rise to meet this current challenge so we can all take a well-deserved break.


Martha E. Pollack