Skip to main content

President Martha E. Pollack and Dr. Gary Koretzky, vice provost for academic integration and professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, discuss the recent cluster of cases on the Ithaca campus and other topics.

Leadership Sessions: COVID-19 cluster prompts swift response

Cornell Leadership Sessions is an ongoing video series in which members of the administration discuss university efforts related to the campus reactivation and the COVID-19 pandemic. Visit covid.cornell.edu for the latest information and resources.

In the sixth installment of the series, President Martha E. Pollack and Dr. Gary Koretzky, vice provost for academic integration and professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, discuss the recent cluster of cases on the Ithaca campus, the need for continued vigilance, new state travel and quarantine rules, and just-announced plans for a hybrid spring semester.

Martha E. Pollack: Hi, everybody. It’s been an extraordinary semester so far. But now we’re in the final stretch. Today I’ve invited our vice provost for academic integration, Dr. Gary Koretzky, to join me. Dr. Koretzky oversaw the creation, the implementation and the operation of our testing program.

And I’ve asked him to talk about the recent cluster of COVID-19 cases that was detected on our campus and maybe also to say a little bit about the days ahead, as many of our students return to their permanent residences. Now that recent cluster reminds us all of the need to remain vigilant for our own sake and for the health of everyone around us.

Before I turn to Gary for his thoughts, I want to provide just a few updates. First, semifinals have begun, and they run until November 24. Instruction resumes on November 30, and at that point, all of our classes are going to be online for the rest of the semester.

Also, you’ve probably heard that Governor Cuomo recently announced changes to New York state’s travel and quarantine rules. And you should have received an email yesterday about Cornell’s policies and our travel and quarantine requirements, which have been adapted to respond to the new New York state guidelines. More details can be found on our COVID-19 reactivation and planning website.

Over the past few months, as a community, we’ve really managed to keep the spread of COVID-19 in check by adhering to public health guidance and by engaging in Cornell’s very rigorous surveillance testing program. And honestly, I can’t say enough about how important Gary Koretzky’s dedication and leadership have been to this effort. So Gary, let me turn it over to you for a few comments.

Gary Koretzky: Thank you so much, Martha, and thank you all. We’re nearing the end of the semester, and the success we have had so far is a wonderful testament to the commitment everyone has made to keeping the campus safe. But as Martha mentioned, and all you can all can see from our public dashboard, we did have an uptick in cases at the end of last week. Let me tell you a bit about this and how we’ve responded.

As part of our strategy to manage inevitable infections on campus, we have impaneled several committees to review how we’re doing in real time and learn from every infection. This helps us stay nimble and adjust what we’re doing, in particular, in terms of testing, so we can react to campus infections.

Last week, as we began to see an uptick in cases from our surveillance testing, we worked with the Tompkins County Health Department to identify contacts of individuals that were found to be positive. We also employed our adaptive testing approach to ask individuals not identified as close contacts, but who shared social circles with those that were positive to also be tested.

These investigations showed us that a cluster was in fact developing. So our next step was to have additional conversations with those being tested to learn of others who might need to be contacted. From these conversations, we learned that there had been a number of gatherings in the days before. Our adaptive testing program is iterative. We expanded as necessary if we learn that infections might be more widespread than we originally thought.

So once we learned of these gatherings, we expanded the circle of those tested, recognizing that the sooner we could find all of the individuals who contracted the virus, the sooner we would be able to provide them the care that they needed and keep them from transmitting the virus to others.

The number of new cases associated with this cluster has come down nicely, so it seems that our strategy is working. But this experience provides some very important lessons.

First, even if gatherings are small, there is still a risk of viral transmission. Mask wearing is essential. And getting together outside, even in the cold Ithaca weather, is preferable to indoor events.

Second, despite doing well, we remain at risk of new infections or even new clusters emerging. This requires constant vigilance and adherence to the measures that have worked so well for us thus far. And finally, another key lesson is that if someone does test positive, their full cooperation with tracing efforts is paramount. It’s essential to know who else may be positive, both to ensure their care and to prevent continued transmission.

So now as we’re nearing the end of in-person on-campus activities, and students are planning to leave the Ithaca area, let me just say a few other words. Please remember that although we’re looking forward to a short break, the virus doesn’t take a break. The risks remain, and in fact, are greater with travel and possible holiday gatherings.

It’s also critical that anyone who is in quarantine or isolation does not leave campus until the health department has cleared them to do so. So please remember to continue with your scheduled tests until you leave campus. And when you do leave, bring with you the practices that have worked so well for us this semester. So if you must travel, travel carefully, have a great break. And students, enjoy the completion of your online studies.

MEP: Thanks so much, Gary. Fall 2020 has been a learning experience for all of us, and fortunately, we now have good evidence that the guidelines we put in place help to keep infection rates low and help to protect the health of our entire campus community. Our students, our faculty, our staff consistently took the steps needed to follow public health guidance, giving us confidence as we look forward to the spring semester.

As I mentioned in my community message from earlier today, we plan this spring, as of now at least, to hold another hybrid semester, with both in-person and remote teaching opportunities for our students. But as we know, the course of the pandemic is unpredictable, so we’re going to be continually monitoring the progress of the virus, and we’ll continue to consult with and follow the guidance of state and public health experts as we develop our plans. And of course, we’ll keep all of you informed.

But for now, keep wearing your face masks, keep getting tested – you know the drill. Thank you for being a part of this wonderful community, stay well, and have a happy Thanksgiving filled with gratitude.

Media Contact

Abby Butler