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Students walking in to the Willard Straight Covid testing location on Feb. 8, 2020.

February 7, 2021

Spring Semester Off to Rocky Start as Cases Rise and Campus Moves to Yellow Alert

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While Cornell entered its spring semester with the experience of a fall semester that saw fewer COVID-19 cases than expected, 2021 may be off to a more tumultuous start.

In the week leading up to the start of classes, the University identified 71 cases — 64 of which were from students. Cornell also reported its first cluster, defined as five or more connected cases, as students moved in. Before move-in, Tompkins County was on a delicate recovery from January, a month that included the highest number of new COVID-19 cases in a single day and the highest number of active hospitalizations.

Since students largely vacated Ithaca in November for an elongated winter break, Tompkins County largely mirrored national trends. The county saw a dip in reported cases throughout the holidays because of delays in reporting cases, followed by an increase in cases and COVID-related deaths in the middle of January. 

Despite the lack of students, Tompkins County reported its highest number of active cases and hospitalizations since the start of the pandemic, with 330 cases and 32 hospitalizations on Jan. 8. 

While the country as a whole saw case counts fall in the final weeks of January, Tompkins County also reported a week of declining new daily COVID-19 cases. However, this decline reversed as students began returning to campus. After Jan. 22, new daily cases consistently decreased until Cornell reported 16 new cases on both Feb. 3 and Feb. 4. 

Frank Kruppa, the Tompkins County public health director, said he hopes that Cornell’s arrival testing program will identify all students with COVID-19, so they can be isolated before seeding further spread in the Ithaca area. 

“We certainly knew that students coming into the community have the potential for bringing additional cases,” Kruppa said. “But Cornell has an excellent testing program, and requires re-entry testing so we identify any cases that come into the community quickly. What I’m hoping that we’ll see is after re-entry is complete, we will have controlled the positive cases that came with the re-entry and limited the spread in the community.”

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But Cornell’s reopening is off to a precarious start compared to the fall semester. While campus saw an initial spike in cases as students traveled to the Ithaca area in the fall, the height of this initial wave of cases was not seen until the first week of classes. In the fall, a 39-person cluster — predominantly student athletes — prompted the University to move its alert level to yellow  on the second day of classes. 

While classes were not a major source of transmission last semester, the early peak in cases highlights the fact that the country as a whole is in a more dire situation than it was five months ago. More instances of COVID-19 among the general population, combined with the fact that Cornell expects to bring back an additional 1,500 students to the 18,000 that studied in the Ithaca area in the fall, introduces a higher level of risk as students flock to campus. 

Cornell saw its highest number of new COVID-19 cases in a single day on Feb. 2 and Feb. 3, reporting 16 cases on both days — all but one of which were students. The surge of cases was part of a cluster linked to a party that members of Greek life attended — which accounted for 12 cases as of Friday. 

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For the spring semester, the University increased its testing frequency of student athletes and members of Greek life from twice a week to three times a week in response to the two major clusters identified last semester that were tied to those two groups. 

Besides the number of cases on campus, the University is also quickly filling up its quarantine capacity — which is used to isolate students who have tested positive or those who are considered a close contact of someone who tested positive, according to John Carberry, a University spokesperson. Cornell’s vacant quarantine space is at the lowest it has ever been, with 102 of its 235 rooms unused. 

In response to the high number of cases last week, and a cluster associated with Greek life, Cornell escalated its alert level from green to yellow on Friday. With campus on yellow alert, the University can increase its testing frequency for certain individuals and decide to reduce capacity for on-campus spaces.