In an effort to frequently test students in the fall, Cornell will repurpose part of a center in the College of Veterinary Medicine into a COVID-19 testing lab.
To reduce the impact of its testing program on local health institutions, Cornell received approval from New York State to develop a COVID-19 testing laboratory in the Animal Health Diagnostic Center as an on-campus viral testing laboratory.
“Going forward, a cornerstone of our public health campaign will involve continued surveillance testing of all members of the Cornell community on a regular basis,” wrote Provost Michael Kotlikoff, Vice Provost Gary Koretsky and veterinary college Dean Lorin Warnick in an email to faculty and staff on Tuesday.
This project was developed by experts in the Cayuga Health system and the Ithaca campus, Weill Cornell Medicine and the Tompkins County Health Department. The Cornell COVID-19 testing laboratory is now “complete,” according to the email.
Cornell’s testing program is designed to test people upon arrival and administer diagnostic testing if they feel ill or have been exposed to COVID-19, in addition to regular surveillance testing. Testing and surveillance will be conducted in collaboration with Cayuga Medical Center and TCHD.
Additionally, the administrators mentioned that Cornell has a low prevalence of COVID-19 on campus, with just 0.2 percent of those on campus testing positive for COVID-19, based on currently available data. This is significantly lower than the 1.1 percent of New Yorkers testing positive for COVID-19, according to the COVID Tracking Project.
Two of 983 asymptomatic faculty and staff tested positive in June, according to the email. Three of the 3,208 local and returning students tested positive as of July 31. So far, 66 percent of the students tested were graduate/professional students, and 34 percent were undergraduate students.
Cornell plans to test students once or twice a week — potentially contradicting the recommendations of the model made by Prof. Peter Frazier, operations research and information engineering. The model, which suggests testing students every five days, predicted that there will be 524 more infections and 6.7 more hospitalizations if students are tested every seven days as opposed to every five days.
It is unclear how often people on Cornell’s Ithaca campus will be tested if they aren’t students.
“Because members of our community have different risks for acquiring COVID-19, the frequency of testing will differ for different segments of our community,” Kotlikoff, Koretsky and Warnick wrote in the email.
Testing for cause includes people who have been in contact with someone with COVID-19 and people with COVID-19 symptoms. Cornell Health will coordinate testing for students, while faculty and staff are advised to seek assistance from the Cayuga Medical Center Ithaca Mall testing site.
Cornell asks that all students get a COVID-19 test and quarantine for 14 days before coming to campus, and it will also test students upon arrival. Students who test positive for COVID-19 before they come to campus must get a medical clearance from Cornell Health before they can return to Ithaca.
While clinicians will use nasopharyngeal swabs to conduct arrival testing, surveillance testing will use self-conducted anterior nares — front of nostril — samples. Anterior nares testing is less invasive, and according to the email, its validity has been recently confirmed, helping support a high volume of testing.
The COVID-19 lab will use pooled testing to analyze samples, but some have questioned its utility because pooled testing’s efficacy decreases as the proportion of positive cases increases. Pool testing is the combination of multiple samples into one tray, which is then placed in a Polymerase Chain Reaction machine. If none of the samples are positive, then the entire pool has tested negative.
Pooled testing offers a way to test more people with less chemical reagents, which is valuable considering that Cornell plans to run thousands of tests per day.
As cases of COVID-19 spike rapidly across the country the supplies needed to conduct PCR tests are in high demand, making the preservation of these supplies a priority. A shortage of these reagents could lead to a backlog of tests, delaying turnaround times for test results.
However, there are concerns regarding false positives, or testing positive when actually COVID-19 free, and false negatives, or testing negative when infected, in pooled testing. By combining multiple samples into one, the viral load of one sample could be diluted past the point of detection.
A white paper by Frazier indicated that — even with these inaccuracies — pooled testing reduces the prevalence of the virus in populations.
“If you don’t have enough capacity to be able to test everyone with individual tests, then you can either test fewer people at less frequency with more accuracy, or you can sacrifice a little in terms of accuracy to test a large number of people at a greater frequency,” Frazier said in a University press release.
If students test positive for COVID-19, Cornell will work with the Tompkins County Health Department to facilitate contact tracing, and quarantining. While TCHD will lead the contact tracing and isolation process, Cornell will work to support students as they quarantine.
Kotlikoff, Koretsky, and Warnick wrote in the email that the increased testing itself wouldn’t guarantee complete safety and encouraged students to abide by the behavioral compact, which has not yet been released.
Cornell’s recommendations currently include frequent handwashing, wearing face masks, physical distancing, avoiding large gatherings, as well as abiding by the New York State Department of Health and Tompkins County public health guidelines.
The importance of following public health guidelines has been underscored by the recent rise of COVID-19 cases in Tompkins County. In July, the county saw 52 new cases, and the majority of cases were associated with out-of-state travel and social gatherings where there was no physical distancing.