Michelle Zhiqing Yang / Sun Staff Photographer

Students line up at Robert Purcell Community Center on North Campus for COVID-19 testing on September 3 — the first day of surveillance testing.

September 7, 2020

Despite Promise of Transparency, Lack of Data, Delays Mar COVID-19 Dashboard

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Two weeks ago, Cornell set up a COVID-19 dashboard to “keep the community informed of the status of COVID-19 testing.” But even as campus cases spike, delays in updating the site have prompted more questions than answers among anxious community members.

Despite a rocky week in which the University’s pandemic alert level was shifted up to “Yellow” following news that an initially 9-person cluster grew to 39 individuals, as of Monday night, the dashboard has not reported test results since Sept. 3.

As a result of the 4-day delay in publicizing test results, it is currently unclear just how close Cornell is to reaching 100 new coronavirus cases in a two-week period — a threshold that, if crossed, would force the University to temporarily suspend in-person classes and enact further restrictions.

The dashboard, which provides the daily number of tests and positive COVID-19 cases from Cornell’s testing centers, does warn that “there may be a two-day delay between when a test is taken and when the results appear on the dashboard.”

However, it has frequently lagged behind the Tompkins County Health Department in reporting campus cases, and lacks data regarding active cases, recoveries, and differentiation between surveillance tests and other COVID-19 diagnostics. Unlike TCHD’s website, which has logged all results since the start of the pandemic, Cornell’s dashboard also only reports information for the seven most recent days.

The delays cannot solely be attributed to the processing time of the test itself. At a Common Council Meeting on Sept. 2, University officials stated that the delay in reporting was the result of the time lost in exchanging data with Cayuga Health System and Tompkins County Health Department.

“The dashboard is updated each weekday at 6 p.m. There is a two day lag in reporting results as the data must be verified by the Tompkins County Health Department,” said Joel Malina, vice president for University Relations, in an email to the Sun.

Complicating matters, Cornell is utilizing pooled testing for its surveillance program — which is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Because students who test positive under a surveillance test must re-test using the FDA-approved nasopharyngeal swab, it can take days from a preliminary positive test to a confirmed case, and ensuing isolation.

It is currently unclear how the dashboard differentiates between surveillance tests and traditional diagnostic tests, and how positive surveillance tests are reported as opposed to positive diagnostic tests.

While the current delay in releasing updated case totals is the longest so far, lagged results have dogged the dashboard since its launch.

On Aug. 28, Tompkins County Health Department reported nine new cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed after several small social gatherings. But this cluster of cases was absent from Cornell’s dashboard until Aug. 31, around 6 p.m. — at which point an additional three cases had been identified over the weekend.

On Sept. 1, TCHD reported that 12 individuals who were close contacts of those in the initial cluster had tested positive for COVID-19. But these cases were not  published on the COVID-19 dashboard until days later.

Cornell started its campus wide surveillance testing on Thursday, and despite some students who were tested on Thursday reporting they have not received results the dashboard was last updated with testing statistics

A delay in updating the dashboard also stalls the updating of Cornell’s COVID-19 alert level. Currently, the dashboard indicates the campus is still in the second lowest alert level — “Yellow: Low to Moderate Risk.”