Dear Commons Community,
Cornell University issued a red alert Monday indicating that there was now a high risk of contracting COVID -19.
Cornell President Martha E. Pollack, has also announced that the campus would nearly shut down. Finals moved online. In-person activities, such as sports events and a graduation ceremony planned for this week, were canceled. Libraries and gyms were closed, and students were encouraged to take their meals to-go from the dining halls. Students could leave campus if they had tested negative for Covid-19 within the last 48 hours. Students who didn’t know their status should get a test as soon as possible. By last night, the number of active cases on campus was 903. As reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education and the Cornell Daily Sun,
Through preliminary testing, Pollack wrote, the university had identified evidence of the Omicron variant in “a significant number” of students who tested positive on Monday. She stressed that evidence of the new, highly contagious variant was preliminary and that the university was waiting for further testing to confirm its presence.
Last year, Cornell brought students back to campus, but with limited in-person activities and socializing. Though case numbers remained relatively low, other colleges reported soaring case counts and several faculty and staff members and students died.
This year was supposed to be different. News from campuses about the virus had been mostly quiet in the fall, with most students vaccinated and case numbers staying relatively low. At Cornell, the alert level was green just last week, indicating very little risk of transmission.
Then came the Omicron variant, which scientists believe is much more transmissible than previous variants. In addition to Cornell, George Washington and Georgetown Universities said this week that they had detected the Omicron variant in their communities. GWU, along with Smith College and Wesleyan, Brown, and Syracuse Universities, are among the small number of colleges that will require a Covid-19 booster shot. Meanwhile, dozens of colleges have revoked employee vaccine requirements since a federal judge blocked the Biden administration’s order that required some colleges, as institutions that contract with the federal government, to issue vaccine mandates.
“We feel like we’re sort of at the tip of the spear,” said Benjamin Cornwell, chair of the sociology department at Cornell. “Campus is eerily empty. It’s like being in an airport at night — and it should be.”
In the spring of 2020, when the coronavirus was raging and campuses had only recently made the abrupt pivot to remote work, Cornwell was a co-author on a paper that shed light on how interconnected college campuses are, making them potential vectors for the virus.
“That’s all coming back to me very fresh,” he said yesterday.
But at that time, he and Kim Weeden, his co-author, used data on how much students crossed paths with one another in classrooms throughout the day. Since then, Cornwell said, colleges have come to believe that the virus spreads more in dorms and at social gatherings than in classrooms. He speculated that the recent surge at Cornell was related to travel after the Thanksgiving break and parties that typically happen at the end of the semester.
At Cornell, “virtually every case” of the Omicron variant was identified in fully vaccinated students, Joel Malina, vice president for university relations, said in an emailed statement. “We have not seen evidence of significant disease in our students to date,” he said.
This is a scary situation that will likely repeat itself in the weeks and months ahead.