After Cornell identified a cluster of COVID-19 cases Friday, a record-high number of students moved into isolation, forcing the University to expand capacity beyond the Statler Hotel and into nearby hotels for contact-traced and COVID-19 positive students.
Quarantine and isolation room capacity dipped to 38 percent on Monday evening, the lowest percentage so far during the pandemic. According to Cornell’s COVID-19 dashboard, 223 of 360 rooms have already been filled.
In its reopening plans, the University said it contracted with nearby hotels in case it needed the space, but Cornell has not publicly released these locations and declined to disclose them to The Sun due to privacy concerns.
A source at the Statler Hotel confirmed to The Sun that over the weekend all of the hotel’s 150 rooms were full.
The Statler, closed to outside visitors since the pandemic’s onset in March 2020, has been used to isolate students who have been exposed to or tested positive for COVID-19. Early in the fall semester, students reported subpar conditions in the hotel-turned-quarantine location.
The Sun found Cornell students isolating at three other Ithaca properties –– the Hilton Garden Inn, Hotel Ithaca and the Courtyard by Marriott Ithaca Airport. Other area hotels have been used to quarantine arriving students, including Fairfield Inn and Suites, Canopy by Hilton and the Homewood Suites by Hilton.
At the Ithaca Airport Courtyard Marriott, a COVID-19 positive Cornell senior, whose case is connected to the COVID-19 cluster identified on Friday, said they receive two calls each day –– one from Cornell Health and one from the Tompkins County Health Department –– to check in on symptoms, and to see if they need mental health services or medicine.
The student said they felt safe and taken care of at the Courtyard Marriott: the hotel stay has come with lunches from Collegetown Bagels, dinner from Ithaca Bakery, free premium-level Wi-Fi and comfortable beds.
A manager who answered the phone on Saturday declined to say whether or not the hotel was contracting with Cornell to house isolated students.
But for the senior, cause for concern came not from the hotel, but from Cornell Health. They said they worried they had come into contact with someone who had tested positive for the virus on campus, but said Cornell Health declared them safe “because I wasn’t exposed to people within 48 hours of them testing positive,” the student wrote.
Anxious about their exposure to the virus, the student scheduled a supplemental test, which, 24 hours later, came back positive.
“If I hadn’t ignored Cornell Health and stayed isolated, [it probably] would’ve spread to other people,” the student wrote.
Kevin Merila ’22 also reported problems with COVID-19 testing. Merila isolated after coming into close contact with a student who tested positive for COVID-19, and said a mistake in his patient data prevented him from being tested.
“When they initially called me I was supposed to be at the Hilton [Garden Inn]. They called back, saying ‘No, chill here in your room, because you have a single,’” Merila said. “They called me back saying we only have space for you at the Courtyard.”
Now five days into his isolation, he said Cornell Health still has not tested him. Cornell Health could not be reached for comment in time for publication.
“They never actually updated the Cornell Health backend,” Merila said, “While they knew I was at the Courtyard, my testing schedule was for the Hilton.”
In a statement, Anne Jones, director of medical services at Cornell Health, described Cornell Health’s role in coordinating testing for isolated students.
“Cornell Health staff manage and coordinate comprehensive COVID services for students, including initial contact tracing in cooperation with TCHD, placement into isolation and quarantine, symptom monitoring to proactively detect severe disease onset, testing protocols, discharges and releases, as well as mental health and wellness programming,” Jones wrote.
At off-campus hotels, isolated students are supposed to stay in their rooms for a minimum of 10 days, staying away from non-isolating guests.
At the properties housing isolated students, however, regular guests also were able to book rooms. On Monday, when The Sun went through the Courtyard’s reservation system, all nights were available for booking besides Monday night.
Likewise, at the Hilton Garden Inn downtown, students isolating are sharing the property with guests.
Teri Tarshus, the general manager at the Garden Inn, declined to confirm if the property was contracting with Cornell to house isolated students or share how many people were isolated at the hotel.
If someone at the property tests positive for COVID-19, the hotel isn’t notified, Tarshus said.
While the Garden Inn sets entire floors aside for quarantine and isolation, Tarshus said regular guests booking at the hotel are not notified of the location’s isolation use.
“I don’t consider myself an isolation site,” Tarshus said. “I wouldn’t reach out to a guest and share with them that I have a basketball team staying here before they book.”
She said the hotel has protocols to prevent isolated individuals from potentially spreading COVID-19: Separate entrances, elevators and check-in procedures, as well as a text-in system where guests can request new linens and other needs, contactless meal delivery and enhanced cleaning protocols.
The Tompkins County Health Department did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication when asked about their oversight and knowledge of Cornell’s off-campus isolation protocols.
On Tuesday, an updated Cornell dashboard showed that there were 33 cases over the weekend, and 17 new cases on Friday, a continuation of the spike in campus cases as students return to Ithaca for the start of classes.
Correction, Feb. 9, 8:53 a.m.: A previous version of this story stated there were no new cases over the weekend; there were 33 cases identified throughout the weekend when Cornell updated its dashboard after the story was published. This post has since been updated.
Update, Feb. 9, 11:20 a.m.: This post has been updated to include a statement from Anne Jones, director of medical services at Cornell Health.