University unveils student COVID-19 testing plan

The university launched its COVID-19 testing program for students July 16 as part of a multipronged public health effort. The initial focus is “arrival testing,” in which students are tested upon their return to the Ithaca area.

More than 900 students completed their arrival test on the first day of the program. When classes start Sept. 2, the program will pivot to ongoing “surveillance testing” to help monitor the extent of the virus in the community.

The comprehensive testing program was announced in a July 15 message from Gary Koretzky, vice provost for academic integration and a professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, and Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life.

Participation in the testing program, which is a collaboration with Cayuga Health System, the Tompkins County Health Department and Cornell Health, is mandatory for all undergraduate, graduate and professional students as part of the Cornell Behavioral Compact that students must agree to should they choose to return to campus.

The university also has developed a Re-entry Checklist that will include actions students are required to complete before they can participate in course enrollment. For students living in off-campus housing, scheduling an arrival test is one of the required actions.

Students who plan to live on campus will complete their arrival test during move-in, beginning Aug. 23. COVID-19 testing will be integrated into their move-in schedule; therefore, there is no need for them to register in advance, Koretzky said during a virtual town hall forum July 15.

Pat Wynn, assistant vice president for student and campus life, provided further information at the forum: “After incoming students are tested, they will be moved directly into a residence hall or a local hotel to await the results, which are expected to be completed within 24 hours.”

The testing site, which opened July 16, is in the Fischell Band Center, adjacent to Schoellkopf Field in the Crescent parking lot. The site will operate from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, through Sept. 1 by appointment only. After that date, all students, faculty and staff who have been approved to return to work on campus will be required to participate in ongoing surveillance testing throughout the fall semester, and provide daily health assessments through the Daily Check.

The testing program is one of four pillars for ensuring community safety during the pandemic, Koretzky said. The other key pieces are

  • a public health campaign;
  • mitigating virus spread through the wearing of masks/face coverings, careful hand hygiene, limiting the size of gatherings, and physical distancing; and
  • a data dashboard that will monitor for early warning signs.

“We feel that we have taken the best practices that we can from the literature and experience of others,” Koretzky said. “Importantly, we’re not going to be static with our approach. This will continue to evolve as we watch what’s happening. But my most important message is that this is a shared responsibility. We really need everybody’s help; wear a mask, physically distance and wash your hands.”

Students are recommended to seek PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing, which detects genetic material of the virus, and if possible, to self-quarantine in their permanent residences for 14 days before departing for Ithaca.

Koretzky noted that the testing program detects the presence of the virus and will not test for antibodies, which identify previous infection.

“We feel like we’ve put a number of things in place,” Koretzky said, “that will maximize the opportunity for our students to come, to thrive, but also to be in the safest possible environment.”

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Abby Butler