COVID-19 safety and precautions

Dec. 14, 2020

Dear Colleagues,

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise around the country, Tompkins County and the Southern Tier are no exception to this trend. While our region had done exceedingly well in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 over the summer and early fall, transmission rates have been steadily increasing. This means that the likelihood of interacting with someone who has the virus is greater now than it had been earlier in the pandemic.

We say it a hundred times a day – wear your mask, maintain physical distance, and avoid larger groups and unnecessary travel. While many of us feel like we are diligently following these rules, infections are still occurring; many people who contract the virus report following the public health guidelines. It is important to recognize that though our actions have not changed, our risk of infection nevertheless continues to increase. We have provided guidance below to be mindful of as we continue through the winter.

Increased incidence: It is important to recognize that while we may be doing the same activities or interacting with the same people today as we did over the summer, the increased incidence of the virus makes it more likely that we may become infected. As cases continue to rise locally and statewide, so does our risk of infection from contact with others.

Indoor transmissions: COVID-19 is an airborne illness, which most commonly spreads through close, person-to-person contact, as well as through touching your face, eyes, nose, or mouth with contaminated hands. The virus spreads more easily when indoors and can remain airborne for longer periods of time. It is important to recognize this increased risk and limit, or avoid, time spent indoors with those who are not members of your household.

Tests represent a moment in time: Because the virus can take between two and 14 days to manifest, each negative test result should be viewed as a moment in time and never as a “greenlight” to travel or visit with family or friends, or to shorten a required or recommended quarantine period. For example, someone who returns from traveling and is tested on day two of their arrival back in Ithaca could still test positive if tested again on day five. If that person gathered with others in the days immediately following their first negative test, that individual had the potential to unknowingly spread the virus. While it is true that some people who test positive have mild or no symptoms, it is impossible to predict who may become severely ill from the virus.

Pods or bubbles: Many individuals have formed “pods” with family or friends who do not live together. Because these individuals know and trust one another, they may interact without wearing masks or physically distancing. While this may seem like a good idea in theory, it isn’t so simple, and many pods have contracted COVID-19. There is much more that we don’t know than what we do know about pods, especially from the scientific literature on their risk or safety. Because each member of the pod has the potential to interact with others outside of the pod, if they get the virus, it can easily spread to other pod members who they are interacting with, often without masks or distancing. Remember, forming a pod means that you accept the risk of every member of that pod, in addition to your own and your family’s risk. If you do choose to create a pod, it should be no more than 10 people whom you trust and who have agreed to follow the same set of rules.

Definition of close contact: As you make decisions about interacting with other people, it is important to keep in mind the definition of a close contact. Anyone who has come within six feet of a confirmed case of COVID-19 for a cumulative time of at least 10 minutes, would be considered a close contact by public health definition, and required to complete mandatory quarantine by the local health departments. It is important to keep your physical connections with others to less than 10 minutes, and to stay greater than six feet apart at all times. Remember: riding in a car, working within the same office or indoor space, or within close quarters will all require mandatory quarantine in the event of a positive case. Avoid these actions as much as possible if you can, and if your work requires any of these actions, speak with your supervisor or HR professionals to ensure you have access to adequate PPE or work site changes to reduce your risk.

Restrictions on campus access: Although campus density has decreased with many students departing the Ithaca area, it is vitally important to limit access to campus to avoid any unnecessary spread of COVID-19. While it may seem harmless to make a short trip to offices or campus facilities, any such visit – and possible interactions that may come along with it – opens possibilities for the virus to transmit among those in our community.

Travel: Travel remains one of the biggest risks for getting or spreading COVID-19. We are already seeing an increase of cases within the Cornell community of faculty and staff related to Thanksgiving travel and gatherings. We have seen 32 positive employee cases between Dec. 3-10 alone. Foregoing in-person holiday gatherings with family or friends can evoke feelings of sadness or guilt, but doing so could save the life of a loved one.

While it is encouraging that safe and effective vaccines may become available in early 2021, we are not out of the woods yet. As the holiday season continues and the colder weather keeps us inside for longer periods of time, please remain vigilant against the virus. Wear a mask, maintain physical distancing, and avoid groups and non-emergency travel.


Sharon McMullen, RN, MPH, FACHA
Assistant Vice President for Health and Wellbeing, Student and Campus Life

John D. Clarke, MD, FAAFP
Director of Occupational Medicine, Cornell Health

Anne Jones, DO, MPH
Director of Medical Services and COVID Public Health Officer, Cornell Health