December 22, 2021

GUEST ROOM | Cornell’s ‘Zero-COVID’ Strategy Was Bound to Fail

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Twenty-one months into the pandemic, and with 99 percent of undergraduates fully vaccinated, Cornell finally hit “Alert Level Red.” On the one hand, this is very surprising — after all, we have so many more tools to combat the virus than we had last year. On the other hand, this was the inevitable result of Cornell’s decision to maintain its massive COVID surveillance apparatus and emergency posture even after all students, faculty and staff were vaccinated. 

For some time now, public health experts have advised moving away from cases as the metric for evaluating an outbreak. With widespread adoption of vaccines, the reality is that contracting COVID is far less dangerous than it used to be. Furthermore, given that the vaccines are less effective, particularly with variants like Omicron, at preventing transmission than we hoped, COVID will remain a feature of our lives for the foreseeable future. We have to learn to cope with COVID as an endemic illness and focus on how we can prevent as many bad outcomes as possible without shutting down society and disrupting people’s lives. 

Cornell’s strategy, in contrast, is entirely case-centric and therein lies the fundamental flaw. As the administration has acknowledged,  it has “not seen severe illness in any of our infected students.” And yet, here we are in December 2021 shutting down campus (except for the Cornell Store, of course). The administration has completely lost perspective of what the overall goal is here and its assessment of the costs and benefits of its restrictions is woefully misguided.

To illustrate the foolishness of looking at cases, consider hospitalizations in Tompkins County: with nearly 1,500 active cases, there are eight hospitalizations. During last year’s winter surge, Tompkins County typically had somewhere between 200 and 300 cases and hospitalization figures in the 20s. So, roughly five times fewer cases and double the hospitalizations. This is the power of vaccines and instead of being thankful for this, we have decided to act as if we are still in the same exact position as March 2020. 

The road forward is clear. Treat COVID like the endemic illness it has become. End the mask mandate, provide testing (including rapid antigen tests) for those who think they are infected but end the constant tracking of every single case. It is simply unsustainable. 

Unfortunately, what worries me is that Cornell seems stubbornly committed to the zero-COVID road. If Cornell thinks that the existence of mild cases among the student body justify masking and restrictions indefinitely, how will students ever have a normal semester again? What is the logical endpoint here? When does the administration acknowledge that COVID isn’t going away and ruining college for its students isn’t going to change that? We mandated masks and vaccines and have the worst outbreak yet. Not only are Cornell’s policies cruel to its students, they don’t even work.

Cornell students have sacrificed so much of their college experience (only the seniors have even had a Slope Day) and it’s infuriating to see the administration take graduation away from the December graduates. The Class of 2022 can only hope the administration sees the light before its senior spring and graduation are pointlessly ruined too.

Matthew Samilow is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Samilow is also an opinion columnist at The Cornell Daily Sun, and can be reached at [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.