Provost Michael Kotlikoff and Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi sent the following message Sept. 3:
As previously communicated, last Friday evening the Tompkins County Health Department (TCHD) identified a cluster of nine COVID-19 cases among the Cornell student population, related to student gatherings where masks were not worn nor physical distancing observed. TCHD has defined a COVID-19 cluster as five or more connected cases. Over the ensuing four days, the number of cases in this cluster grew by 12, and late yesterday evening, after President Pollack’s community message was sent, the president’s leadership team learned that the size of this and a related cluster had grown to a total of 39 cases. We expect the size of the clusters to grow further over the coming days as we learn the results of pending tests.
With the exception of eight non-cluster-related cases, the remaining 39 positive cases from the last six days mainly comprise a particular cohort of students – student athletes (36 of the clustered cases). While these clusters represent approximately only 0.1% of our campus population, and a very small percentage of our student athletes, it points to a dangerous disregard by a group of students for the behavioral guidelines that we established to protect the public health of our community.
As soon as we learned of the outbreak, we implemented, in consultation with TCHD, an additional layer to our testing protocol: adaptive testing, screening not just close contacts but other students who we felt might be impacted, including members of some of our athletic teams. It is in part because of this aggressive, adaptive testing that we have been able to catch so many cases.
So, as disheartening as it is to learn of these positive cases, our screening program is working. All of the infected students are in isolation and being supported, and their contacts are being quarantined to prevent additional spread. Importantly, we do not believe the new infections have spread outside the student community.
To be clear, however – all is not well. Far from it. This episode demonstrates exactly what President Pollack said in her message last night: that there is the potential for just a few small student gatherings to destroy all our plans for an in-person semester. Although we are currently still in a manageable situation, the rapid growth of cases in these recent clusters puts us perilously close to needing to take drastic action, such as moving to wholly online classes for a period of time.
While we do not publicly discuss individual student sanctions, be assured that this type of irresponsible behavior and disregard for others in our community has been dealt with through significant consequences, including suspension and being banned from campus; we will not shy away from continuing to impose such sanctions where appropriate. All of us share a responsibility to conduct ourselves in ways that do not put others at risk, and we cannot allow the actions of a few to ruin the possibility of an in-person semester and risk the health and safety of our community.
Over the last six months, countless Cornell faculty and staff have worked around the clock to make this semester as safe as possible for all. To that end, the university has spent millions of dollars to develop and implement a testing protocol that is among the most extensive in the nation. And the vast majority of our students are taking the difficult yet necessary steps to protect public health.
We are hopeful that our campus community can still ensure that we have a successful residential semester; but that will only happen if everyone, immediately, does the right thing.
We will continue to enforce the behavioral compact. But the recent behavioral violations and the resulting outbreak have other, immediate campuswide impacts, including our announcement today that we are moving our COVID-19 alert level to Yellow. This means that, in addition to all previously announced public health measures (including physical distancing, mask-wearing and hand-washing) and the above-mentioned use of adaptive testing, effective immediately all student gatherings are limited to 10 people. And, as previously announced, all in-person university-sponsored events and activities remain suspended at least through the end of September.
In closing, we note that there have been other universities that faced initial outbreaks, and they have been able to pull together and remain open. It is our sincere hope that all of us will similarly learn from the experience of this past week, that we will rededicate ourselves to abiding by all of the county’s and Cornell’s public health guidelines, and that we will be able to enjoy a healthy and productive semester. We can do this.