Op-Ed: Three Things to Keep in Mind As COVID-19 Cases Surge

February 9, 2021

This opinion piece from Dr. Anne C. Jones, DO, MPH, COVID public health officer at Cornell University and medical director of Cornell Health, ran in the Cornell Daily Sun on Feb. 9.

I am writing to ask for your help to prevent further spread of COVID-19 at Cornell. As we embark on the first week of classes, we are experiencing a cluster and a surge in cases, many of which are attributable to gatherings in which public health procedures were not followed. It's not just about wearing masks, physical distancing, and washing hands anymore. In the middle of a local surge in cases, we need to protect ourselves and each other in very specific ways.

First, your honesty with contact tracing is a crucial part of containing this surge. Testing ensures early identification of COVID, but once cases are identified, the public health process only works when we can quickly identify who may have been exposed, and immediately place them into quarantine. Accurate contact tracing depends on an open dialogue between the patient affected and the healthcare provider, and an understanding that the individuals involved will be honest and disclose their activities. As healthcare professionals, we at Cornell Health keep all individual's medical information confidential and pass no judgement regarding information provided to us. Our primary goal is to deliver excellent clinical care, and protect the students on this campus from infection and severe disease. We need your full cooperation to do so.

It has been reported nationally that groups of people may socialize without following public health guidelines and then pressure members of these groups to be dishonest with contact tracers. Please do not let this practice compromise the safety of our community. It places individuals and groups at risk, and prevents our public health and medical experts from containing infection. What's more, this practice borders on hazing culture and is not part of a caring community. Coercing classmates and friends into defying contact tracing is unacceptable and I urge you to safeguard against it for yourselves and each other.

Second, in-person social gatherings are not safe at this time. With cases surging across campus, we must be mindful of our actions and help remind each other: do not gather in person for any parties, gatherings, hang-outs, or unapproved events of any kind. Keep in-person interactions with others to a few minutes at a time – remember, the criteria for being a “close contact” is interacting with another person for a cumulative time of at least 10 minutes in a 24-hour period. If you are living in a fraternity, sorority, or any group living arrangements (co-ops, large houses), avoid congregating in lounges, living rooms, or meeting spaces and wear your masks while inside your house as you walk through living spaces. If you are in on-campus housing, follow the expectations and procedures related to room occupancy, and avoid any interactions that are not required. Reach out for help if you need help with activating infection control practices where you live.

And finally, Cornell Health is rescheduling or cancelling non-urgent medical services, because we are all hands on deck for COVID right now. With so many COVID cases on campus, our central priority is to ensure that every student who needs care for a COVID-19 infection gets it, to prevent severe illness or worsening of disease, and to ensure that students get better. Starting this week, Cornell Health's primary care medical services will be rescheduling and cancelling routine and preventive appointments (i.e., immunizations, well-person care, such as pap smears, sexual health, and other non-urgent or emergent care), and re-deploying staff to the pandemic effort. With almost 300 students in isolation and quarantine, our staff are spread across multiple hotels to ensure that students are being monitored and are kept safe. Please know that we are doing our best to prioritize and triage everyone's needs.

Why is all of this important? It's about keeping you, your friends and this whole community as safe as possible. Research has shown that young adults are more likely than any other age group to spread infection to others, and this means we all must stay vigilant to protect the most vulnerable among us. Think about wearing your mask not just for you, but for those in our community who have chronic illnesses and more likely to get sick. If you get a call for contact tracing, report all of your contacts because you never know — one of them may have an underlying health condition that you aren't aware of. We have pulled through many difficult experiences as a community and, with concerted and collective effort, we can do it again this time.