Cornell leaders give COVID-19 testing program update

The following message was sent Aug. 4 to faculty and staff on the Ithaca campus by Provost Michael Kotlikoff, Vice Provost Gary Koretzky and Dean Lorin Warnick:

We are writing to provide you with an update on COVID-19 testing on the Cornell Ithaca campus. Many of you participated in voluntary testing offered in partnership with Cayuga Health System to faculty and staff in June. We have also initiated the arrival testing that is required of students who are preparing to participate in educational programs this fall. Many thanks to all of you who have participated in the testing to date. Tompkins County has seen an increase in positive cases and illnesses in July, primarily associated with social gatherings where physical distancing and mask wearing guidelines were not followed or linked to out-of-state travel. These results underscore the need for continued strict adherence to state, county and university public health guidelines, including 14-day quarantine requirements of those returning from states on New York’s travel advisory list, which today numbers 34 states plus Puerto Rico.

Testing Results to Date

We are pleased to report that the results from our surveillance testing of asymptomatic faculty, staff and students indicate a very low prevalence within the Cornell community. In June, 983 asymptomatic faculty and staff were tested on campus, with only two positive cases identified. Moreover, 3,208 local and returning students have been tested as of July 31, with only three positive cases identified. Students who have completed testing comprise 66% graduate/professional and 34% undergraduates. These results are reassuring with respect to the current situation, but also emphasize the importance of continued adherence to public health guidelines.

Going forward, a cornerstone of our public health campaign will involve continued surveillance testing of all members of the Cornell community on a regular basis. This is particularly important because many individuals may have been infected with the coronavirus, yet show no symptoms. Key to controlling infection is early detection and isolation, along with contact tracing and quarantine. Our surveillance plan is based on epidemiological modeling performed by professor Peter Frazier and his research group, and these models have been updated to take into consideration the recent increase in infections across the country, as well as the local spikes in prevalence in our region. This modeling indicates that a safe reopening will require our being able to perform thousands of tests per day. Recognizing the importance of preserving capacity for testing of the broader Tompkins County community, we sought (and received) approval from the state to develop a new on-campus viral testing laboratory based on unique skills and expertise in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Animal Health Diagnostic Center in collaboration with physicians and diagnosticians at Cayuga Health System. These efforts have also drawn on expertise from other faculty on campus and from colleagues at Weill Cornell Medicine, and involved close collaborations with the Tompkins County Health Department (TCHD). The new Cornell COVID-19 Testing Laboratory (CCTL) housed in the College of Veterinary Medicine is now complete, adding critical capacity to our region. We have just now completed validation of pooled testing of anterior nares (front of the nostril) samples – a critical development for convenient, high-volume testing. The CCTL will continue to work in a partnership with Cayuga Health System to provide the full suite of surveillance and diagnostic testing required to support our campus community.

The Ongoing Testing Program

There are three components of our testing program:

  1. Testing for Cause: Any member of the community with symptoms of COVID-19, or who becomes aware that they have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19, should seek COVID-19 testing. Students should contact Cornell Health; faculty and staff should seek testing at the Cayuga Medical Center Ithaca Mall testing site. Community members will be queried daily as to symptoms and contacts through the Daily Check. 
  2. Arrival Testing: Prior to departing for Ithaca, all students are asked to quarantine for 14 days and, if possible, obtain a COVID-19 PCR test in their local area; students who test positive will need to obtain medical clearance from Cornell Health before arrival in Ithaca. Once arriving in Ithaca, all students will be tested for COVID-19 as part of their re-entry to Cornell. While this ‘arrival test’ will be by a nasopharyngeal swab, surveillance testing will be via less invasive anterior nares sampling.  
  3. Surveillance Testing: Once the semester starts, all members of the Cornell community will be required to participate in surveillance testing. This program is meant to survey large numbers of the community each day to identify asymptomatic individuals before they can spread the virus. Because members of our community have different risks for acquiring COVID-19, the frequency of testing will differ for different segments of our community; students, for example, will be tested either once or twice a week. Surveillance testing will be confirmed by a diagnostic test, with reporting of positives to TCHD, as required. TCHD will then lead contact tracing and any necessary quarantine and isolation. Cornell will collaborate in these efforts to support students during isolation/quarantine.   

Community Health Measures

Despite our intensive surveillance program, testing alone will not ensure the safety of our community. We must rely on adherence to time-tested infectious disease measures to prevent the spread of the disease. Public health guidelines established by the New York State Department of Health, Tompkins County and Cornell are a critical component of the student behavioral compact and must guide all of our behavior – students, faculty and staff. These include scrupulous attention to hand hygiene, adherence to physical distancing and avoiding large gatherings, and, most importantly, wearing facial coverings outside when distancing is not possible and always inside, except in a private office or residence. 

As always, we thank you for your ongoing attention to these important matters and will continue to update you on our preparation for the fall semester over the coming days and weeks.

Media Contact

Rebecca Valli