Gabby Jones / The New York Times

Gov. Andrew Cuomo during a news conference about the coronavirus, in March.

September 9, 2020

Cuomo Doubles Down On 100 Case Cap For Universities as Cornell Sees Increase in Cases

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Two weeks ago Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) set a threshold for New York colleges and universities to temporarily suspend in-person classes: 100 COVID-19 cases in two weeks.

Today, Cuomo doubled down on the decision as Cornell reaches close to a third of this threshold. While the Ithaca campus has seen 82 cases, only 31 will count toward the threshold for shutdown according to state guidelines that would only count students residing on campus or taking at least one in-person class.

The governor reaffirmed his commitment to shuttering colleges that see large outbreaks in order to avoid community spread in college towns.

“It is going to happen, I am telling you that as I sit here — it will happen. 100 cases can happen very easily. You saw all the other colleges that have it,” Cuomo said in a briefing Tuesday. “It is going to be unequivocal, and as soon as the college has notice from any source they have to immediately report it.”

Like Cuomo, Cornell’s administrators also struck a pessimistic chord. In an email sent last week, President Martha E. Pollack warned that avoiding more than 100 cases in two weeks would be  “extremely difficult.”

108 colleges across the country have already reported more than 100 cases, with seven New York State universities — including Cornell — also seeing outbreaks on their campuses.  Out of these seven only State University of New York at Oneonta has been forced to transition online on Sep. 3, after their cases soared to nearly 400. The other six institutions have seen outbreaks, but have not breached Cuomo’s threshold of 100 cases in two weeks.

After a five day pause, Cornell’s COVID-19 dashboard was updated to report the “confirmed on-campus positives” that were mandated by New York State. It reports that the university has seen 31 on-campus positives since Sep. 2 — the first day of classes.

Cornell has reported 82 positive cases of COVID-19 in the past two weeks, but confirmed on-campus positives only account for students that are taking classes in person or living on campus, and faculty that are physically working on campus since the start of the semester.

Given that 50 percent of students live off campus and two thirds of classes are virtual, this change could significantly decrease the pool of students that could be counted toward the closure threshold.

“[The ‘confirmed on-campus positives’] shows the number of positive cases since the first day of on-campus activities (Sept. 2) among students living on campus or taking at least one in-person class, as well as among faculty and staff cleared to work on campus,” wrote Joel Malina, vice president for university relations, in an email to the Sun.

In planning to reopen campus, the administration initially created a self-imposed threshold to transition to online learning if there are more than 250 cases in two weeks.

The state’s regulation more than halved the bar for transitioning to virtual learning, which administrators saw as a challenge given Cornell’s size and its ambitious surveillance testing program.

“Because the limit of 100 applies to all universities with a population greater than 2,000, it sets a very high bar for large schools like ours,” wrote President Martha E. Pollack in an email to students. “And the challenge is even greater here because of our aggressive surveillance testing program. With frequent, universal testing, the program is designed to catch nearly every case of infection, including the many asymptomatic cases that would not be identified or counted with the more typical for-cause testing, or with a less aggressive surveillance testing program.”