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Following troubling starts to reopening for the spring semester, cases on campus are slowly declining.

February 17, 2021

COVID Weekly Update: New Semester, New Variants

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After almost a week of daily double-digit cases as students returned to Ithaca, campus is making a gradual recovery. 

The last week of January and the beginning of February marked some of the worst weeks of the pandemic on Cornell’s campus, reporting the highest number of new daily cases and lowest availability of quarantine and isolation spaces. As of Feb. 8, the seven-day average of new cases began to decrease consistently for the first time since Jan. 17. 

In the past week, cases on campus have slowly declined, and quarantine rooms in The Statler Hotel have started to clear out — as of early Wednesday morning, 51 percent of Cornell’s quarantine space is available, compared to 36 percent last week. While the initial spike and subsequent leveling off parallels how the fall semester started, more variants of SARS-CoV-2 have evolved, complicating the state of reopening.

Cases remain higher than most of last semester, and the new strains of the virus may be deadlier than the original. Tompkins County first identified the U.K. variant, or B.1.1.7, on Jan. 15, and three more cases were identified Feb. 3. 

So far, researchers nationwide have not conducted extensive genomic testing to understand which variants are present in the U.S, and some fear that this variant may become the primary strain in the U.S. as soon as March. 

Cornell identified the U.K. variant in a few students through the arrival testing process, according to Gary Koretzky ’78, vice provost for academic integration. The COVID-19 testing lab at the College of Veterinary Medicine — which analyzes all of Cornell’s tests — has been conducting full genomic sequencing on the positive samples when there is reason to believe the variant may be present, such as a case tied to international travel.

“Given that our students were arriving from so many different locations, positive samples underwent additional testing for variants that have been described around the world,” Koretzky wrote. “Due to our aggressive surveillance testing protocol, we have been able to contain the spread of the variant among our student population.”

A handful of universities have reported cases of the B.1.1.7 variants this semester, including the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Miami and the University of Texas at Austin.

All six of the schools that have reported instances of B.1.1.7 have been large research universities. However, this could be the case because these are the only schools that have the facilities to sequence the SARS-CoV-2 strains in their campus body. 
Similar to the schools that have identified a virus variant, Cornell has not significantly modified its COVID-19 precautions, but has doubled down on its existing pandemic measures, including quarantine and isolation protocols, surveillance testing and physical distancing.

Clarification, Feb. 17, 12:43 p.m.: In a statement to The Sun on Wednesday, the University clarified that Cornell identified the U.K. variant through the arrival testing process. This article has since been updated.   

Correction, Feb. 17, 12:43 p.m.: A previous version of this article misstated the frequency in which Cornell is conducting genomic sequencing on positive samples. Cornell is only conducting sequencing when there is reason to believe that the variant may be present, rather than on most positive samples on campus. The article has since been updated.