Cornell pilots shortened COVID-19 isolation program

In a pilot program, a limited number of fully vaccinated students with breakthrough but asymptomatic COVID-19 infections will be able to test out of their mandatory 10-day isolation periods early after receiving two negative tests.

The pilot, which will apply only to students who live in and undergo their isolations in Cornell-sponsored housing, was developed in consultation with and approved by the New York State Department of Health and the Tompkins County Health Department (TCHD).

Cornell and the TCHD will assess the program’s success after 25 students have been enrolled, which could take time, given the current low rates of breakthrough infections at Cornell.

“It’s clear that some people clear the virus [from their bodies], and they’re no longer infectious and are no longer able to transmit the virus,” said Gary Koretzky, vice provost for academic integration and a professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine.

Isolation of positive individuals is a key part of controlling COVID-19 transmission but we also recognize that a 10-day isolation is really disruptive for students' educations and their lives," he said. "So we’re trying to develop a strategy to identify people for whom it’s perfectly safe to leave isolation earlier.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic has continued beyond anyone’s expectations, Cornell leadership has adapted and innovated its policies to stay in lockstep with new knowledge gained about the dynamics of the disease.

“The pandemic is always evolving,” Koretzky said. “We’re learning more and we always want to be mindful about new things that are being discovered. First and foremost, safety drives our policies.”

For the pilot program, testing out of the 10-day isolation period will require a vaccinated, asymptomatic student to receive two consecutive negative results, on the third day after a positive test and again after five days. If students are still positive on the third day, they will then be tested again on the fifth and seventh day, and if their tests prove negative on both those days, they can also be released from isolation.

Cornell Health will determine that vaccinated students who test positive are truly asymptomatic (they must have no symptoms of any kind) before they are enrolled in the program. The Cornell COVID-19 Testing Lab has devised a protocol to test enrolled students remotely, from their rooms, as they won’t be able to leave isolation until they are cleared, and these tests will be processed as quickly as possible.

The PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests utilized by the lab are considered the gold standard and are highly effective; two tests will be administered out of an abundance of caution. Cornell Health staff will also carefully monitor these students to confirm that they do not develop symptoms during their isolation period. If a student tests negative twice, she or he will only be released from isolation after a consultation with the TCHD.

“We appreciate Cornell’s commitment to this pilot program and to sharing information on their process and results with the Health Department,” said Frank Kruppa, Tompkins County public health director. “Partnering with Cornell will allow us to assess the information from this program and generate data so that we may implement a program for the broader community.”

If the program proves successful – as determined by a significant number of the sample of students testing out of isolation – the university and TCHD will assess whether it makes sense to expand the protocol to all students.

A few of Cornell’s peer institutions, including Duke University, have begun similar new protocols and early results have shown that a number of their students have been able to test out of isolation.

Questions about the pilot program may be directed to the COVID-19 Support Center.

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Abby Butler