Community effort propels Cornell past millionth test

Cornell has administered more than 1 million COVID-19 tests, a milestone that symbolizes the collective work of hundreds of Cornellians, who worked overtime and engaged in duties outside of their regular jobs to protect lives.

The staggering feat – celebrated with a COVID-19 Testing Program Recognition Event on April 26 – has enabled the university to continue classes by returning test results within 24 hours, allowing for rapid contact tracing and limiting disease spread, not just on campus but in the wider community.

The significance of the achievement was not lost on Dr. Anthony Fauci, M.D. ’66, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden. Fauci wrote a letter to the those involved with Cornell’s COVID-19 testing effort.

Mark Schott is a driver for transportation and delivery services.

“Front-line work is challenging on many levels. It is gratifying knowing that our team had an integral role in keeping Cornell and the greater Ithaca community as safe as possible during these unprecedented times.”

Mark Schott, courier

“I understand that this accomplishment arose from Cornell’s commitment to the health and safety of its campus and came about after creation of a state-of-the-art testing program in collaboration with your community partners, Cayuga Medical Center and the Tompkins County Health Department,” Fauci wrote.

He noted the amount of work that went into creating the testing program, including:

  • the development of an application where community members could self-report symptoms and schedule their surveillance tests;
  • nine testing sites;
  • quick results;
  • committees to evaluate each positive case so that Cornell could adapt its strategy to mitigate viral spread;
  • a robust contact tracing program; and
  • monitored isolation and quarantine space to ensure care for individuals who tested positive for COVID-19.

“An effort of this scale could only have been achieved through the diligence and skill of hundreds of people working together,” Fauci wrote, “and I applaud each and every one of you for your contributions to fighting this pandemic.”

Bridget Flanigan, Cornell Health nurse manager, manages the isolation/quarantine team; coordinates COVID testing at Cornell Health and at the hotels where students are in quarantine.

“It’s been meaningful to know my team and I contributed to controlling the spread of the virus on campus and in our community.” 

Bridget Flanigan

The virtual recognition event, held a day before the 156th anniversary of the signing of the university’s charter, was organized under the leadership of Gary Koretzky ‘78, vice provost for academic integration, and hosted by Dr. Lorin Warnick, Ph.D. ‘94, the Austin O. Hooey Dean of Veterinary Medicine, to acknowledge the individuals who worked together under pressure of time and the growing pandemic to build a system and run 1 million tests – and counting.

“All of your achievements over this past year are now a really important part of the long history of Cornell,” President Martha E. Pollack said at the recognition event. “The challenges we faced through this pandemic certainly ranked among the most significant challenges that this university has faced since its founding.”

“Together, this group executed a vision that resulted in Cornell alone doing about 2% of the total testing done in New York state since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff. “We’re a community of about 20,000, in a state of 20 million, and we did two out of every 100 tests in the state,” he said, in reference to the number of Cornellians who were surveilled and therefore approved for on-campus access. “This is truly remarkable.”

Grace Weisbecker, Cayuga Medical Center (CMC) Sampling Services operations manager, coordinates and oversees all CMC’s testing operations, including managing Cornell’s testing schedules and maintaining the Collegetown testing site.

“I believe it’s incredibly important that Cayuga Health System and Cornell University partnered to bring this robust testing effort to fruition. We wouldn’t have been nearly as successful as a community had we not fostered this collaborative partnership, and I think the community will benefit greatly in the coming years because of it.”

Grace Weisbecker

Frank Kruppa, Tompkins County public health director, said Cornell has done more testing than some U.S. states, and helped Tompkins County keep its number of deaths per capita the lowest in the state.

It was less than a year ago, in early June 2020, that the university first considered building what eventually became the Cornell COVID-19 Testing Laboratory (CCTL). The science-based decision was driven by epidemiological models developed by Peter Frazier, associate professor of operations research and information engineering; the models revealed that a successful strategy would require collecting 7,000 samples a day.

A month later, university leadership ­– including Pollack, Kotlikoff, Koretzky  and Warnick – asked Dr. Diego Diel, associate professor in the Department of Population Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences and director of the Virology Laboratory at the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Animal Health Diagnostic Center (AHDC), to lead efforts to build the CCTL.

Jeremy Collison, collection site supervisor, began as an intake assistant in mid-August and soon was promoted to collection site supervisor, primarily at Willard Straight Hall.

“We started from scratch and faced many difficulties, but by leveraging the resources and people Cornell had available and with a lot of hard work, we overcame the organizational and operational challenges to reach a peak of over 7,000 tests in a day, nine sites at once, and well over 150 employees. All starting from just an idea.”

Jeremy Collison

A team composed of College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) and AHDC staff members helped design and construct a testing lab, which Diel now directs, from scratch in less than two months. The team members were aided by their expertise in running high-quality, high-throughput tests to detect epidemics of viruses and pathogens in animals at the AHDC. Building the laboratory was a team effort: in addition to laboratory expertise at Cornell and Cayuga Health System, CVM facilities staff, AHDC administration and IT teams spent countless hours preparing the space, integrating laboratory information systems, and procuring equipment and supplies.

Surveillance efforts began Aug. 17, and by Sept. 2 the university was testing undergraduates twice weekly and on-campus graduate students, faculty and staff on a weekly basis. With steady assessment, quick adaptations and key input from public health experts and doctors at Cayuga Health System who had already built their own testing facilities, the Cornell testing program evolved from handling 1,000 daily tests to achieving the goal of collecting more than 7,000 tests in a single day.

Hundreds of Cornellians stepped out of their normal roles in order to manage this vast undertaking.

CVM and university human resources recruiters worked 12-hour and longer days to rapidly hire and train staff and student employees for check-ins, intakes and sample collection seven days a week. Site managers and sample site staff made sure operations ran smoothly and protocols were carefully followed as people moved through lines. Couriers began continuously running samples from collection sites to the CCTL.

Melissa Laverack (front row, left) and Roopa Venugopalan (front row, second from left), co-manage the CCTL staff and workflow; lead the validation work to set up the testing program, sourced and procured automated lab equipment and organized the setup of the testing laboratory.

“There were constant changes in expectations to meet the demands of this global pandemic. The team was able to overcome these challenges by being able to see the bigger picture and understand the need for flexibility as well as with the support of a great leader, Dr. Diego Diel, who trusted and supported us with this project, and an amazing team in the lab. We wouldn’t be where we are without every single one of them.”

Melissa Laverack

Information technology specialists created a daily check interface to schedule tests. A dashboard was developed for public transparency, and experts analyzed disease data and trends on campus. The COVID-19 Support Center served as a customer service hub for all COVID-related response questions. Launched in October, the center has handled over 30,000 inquiries to date. And when individuals tested positive for COVID-19, Cornell Health personnel managed the quarantine and isolation, while staff at the Statler Hotel provided rooms for students to convalesce with health professionals there to care for them.

Meanwhile, all of this buoyed the university’s primary mission, as faculty adapted their teaching methods for online classes.

The entire effort was carried out under the national and local spotlights of public scrutiny. When the university announced last summer that it would conduct in-person classes, county residents worried the influx of students would increase disease numbers.

Bill Juda, web developer, developed information technology solutions for Cornell’s Daily Check system.

“In helping with the testing program I was taking an active part in keeping my family, the Cornell community and the surrounding area safe during COVID-19.”

Bill Juda

“If there was ever any doubt that Cornell is part of our community, you all proved those folks wrong,” Kruppa said. “There is no doubt that the disease incidence in our community was lower than it would have been had it not been for your efforts.”

“Consider that in our community today, there are brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, friends, relatives and co-workers who are protected thanks to the efforts that were undertaken by you all,” said Dr. Martin Stallone, president and CEO of Cayuga Health System.

The 1 million-test milestone has been passed and the work continues, Koretzky said, with plans to reduce the number of people required to get tests once they are fully vaccinated. “We still have to remain very, very vigilant,” he said, to continue the steps that have proved successful and use testing as a cornerstone to identify cases early to prevent spread.

“This was truly a collective effort of hundreds of people who have devoted their time this year,” Koretzky said. “I will say, without a doubt, that the work of the lab saved lives during this pandemic. And there’s nothing better than that.”

Media Contact

Abby Butler