Increase in COVID-19 cases and change in campus operations

Aug. 27, 2021

Dear Ithaca campus community,

As students arrived in Ithaca for the start of the semester, we expected to see a significant number of positive COVID-19 cases identified through our arrival and surveillance testing. In fact, our decision to reinstate mandatory surveillance testing for almost all students recognized this likelihood and was instituted so that we could identify and isolate positive cases early and minimize spread of the virus. Over the last few days, however, the number of positive cases has been higher than we anticipated. As a result, we are moving the Ithaca campus to COVID-19 Alert Level Yellow.

Over the past three days, several dozen positive student cases (although still far less than one percent of our campus population) have been identified. (The COVID-19 dashboard will be updated as final reviews are completed.) We are moving quickly to assign isolation space to each of these students. Additionally, we are testing direct contacts as well as other people who seem likely to have had interactions with those who tested positive. This means that we will necessarily see more positive cases; but it also means that we will be able to identify and isolate cases more rapidly.

While the number of cases is concerning, we want to emphasize that our system is working. Virtually all of our students are fully vaccinated; as such, it is the case that those who are infected will almost all be vaccinated. And as has been seen across the country, the vaccine is proving effective in preventing severe illness — the vast majority of our identified cases are asymptomatic or experiencing only mild symptoms and would likely not have been identified were it not for our extensive testing program. Importantly, the knowledge gained from our testing program also provides us with information as to where infections are occurring; to date, these are overwhelmingly associated with informal social events and activities and are not linked to organized university events.

The fact that we are testing a large portion of our community has enabled us to identify cases early, analyze the data and adjust our protocols as needed. As such and effective immediately:

  • All students, faculty, staff and visitors must wear masks whenever on campus (indoors or outdoors). We strongly encourage students living in off-campus communal housing (e.g., Greek life) to similarly mask indoors. There will continue to be exemptions in place for athletics teams during practice and competition.
  • The surveillance testing frequency of some students will be increased. Students should check their email and visit their Daily Check portal for updates.
  • Staff who are unvaccinated must continue to test twice weekly, and some vaccinated staff will be instructed to test weekly commencing before Labor Day. All vaccinated staff and faculty will have the opportunity to opt into weekly testing early in September and supplemental testing is available now.
  • Cornell-sponsored events, student activities and other gatherings may be limited, canceled or moved online. Look for more details in follow-up communications. Informal social gatherings — both on or off campus — of more than a small number of attendees should be postponed until our case count moderates.

As we have noted in prior communications, the university did not have any in-classroom transmission of the virus last academic year, and our modeling confirms that the likelihood of in-classroom transmission, if vaccination, surveillance testing and indoor masking rules are followed, is extremely unlikely. The number of recent positive cases does not change this assessment. We will, however, closely track and analyze the testing results and related data over the coming days, and, if the numbers do not subside, we may consider moving to virtual instruction for a period of time. To minimize the likelihood of this, it is critically important that everyone abide by the expanded masking, testing and event policies.

We want to emphasize: this uptick in cases has enabled us to assess our current practices and to make prudent adjustments. And while we can expect more positives to be identified over the coming days, our community has demonstrated a remarkable ability over the last two semesters to course-correct. With your cooperation, we expect to do so again.

We will monitor the situation over the coming days and communicate again with you in the middle of next week with an update and any additional actions that may be needed.


Michael I. Kotlikoff

Ryan Lombardi
Vice President for Student and Campus Life

Mary Opperman
Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer