Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

The Physical Science Building, which remained nearly empty, in late March, following the announcement that most on-campus activities would be suspended.

August 3, 2020

Reopening Model Update Reaffirms Call for In-Person Fall as Cases Rise in Ithaca

Print More

A recent addendum to the contentious reopening model reaffirmed Cornell’s decision to proceed with a hybrid model as Ithaca saw a significant spike in COVID-19 cases attributed to a party.

The addendum — spurred by a series of faculty questions regarding the number of contacts per day, testing frequency and the effect of non-compliance with social distancing measures — reevaluated the model under different scenarios to better understand what the fall semester could look like under different assumptions.

Its main finding? Testing is key.

The model, released June 15, posited that those on campus have an average of 8.3 close contacts per day. This figure represents an average of the general population from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Prof. Peter Frazier, operations research and information engineering. Students and professors alike questioned the validity of this assumption in the context of a college campus.

The addendum clarified the definition of a close contact as two people interacting within 6 feet of each other for over 15 minutes. Simply passing by someone in the hall, or sitting on opposite sides of a classroom would not qualify as a close contact. 8.3 contacts also only includes members of the Cornell community.

Frazier and his team reassessed the literature on interpersonal contacts and still supported the 8.3 value, but also considered more pessimistic scenarios where members of the Cornell community would have 10.8 and 17.3 contacts per day. The group found that 10.8 contacts per day is “entirely plausible,” while 17.3 is extremely unlikely. But the 17.3 contacts per day can be used as an extreme value to test the robustness of the model.

Even if the average contacts per day is higher than expected come September, the model claims that the same health outcomes as the initial model are still possible — it would just require increased testing frequency.

The addendum comes to a similar conclusion regarding student behavior. For most colleges, student adherence to social distancing is the big question mark for the next semester. The addendum claims that more frequent testing can combat noncompliance.

At other universities like the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Washington, the lack of social distancing practices has already presented health concerns — both universities have seen COVID-19 outbreaks tied to parties. This pattern held true locally as well. After having only one to two active cases for nearly a month, Ithaca witnessed a spike of COVID-19 cases following multiple social gatherings during the Fourth of July weekend.

Just this past week, Ithaca saw another uptick with nine confirmed cases following a social gathering where attendees did not follow quarantine recommendations or travel guidelines. The attendees also didn’t wear masks.

It is not clear whether those in attendance were Cornell students, but the event displays the potential for an increase in local cases if students fail to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

The Tompkins County Health Department declined to comment on the nature of the gathering or if the attendees had any affiliation with the University.

It is also unclear how Frazier’s model will be affected by the University’s latest decision to not provide quarantine accommodations to all students from travel-restricted states.