January 6, 2022

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: RE: ‘Cornell’s ‘Zero-COVID’ Strategy Was Bound to Fail’

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To the Editor:

December 2021 officially marks two years since the initial known outbreak of SARS-CoV-2. Since then we have grown together through the pitfalls of novel viruses and their corresponding epidemiological impacts. But with the rise and fall of new variants, symptoms, illnesses and deaths, one thing is clear: we still have much to learn. 

Just as Cornell was reaching the tail end of the semester, a surge of cases erupted on campus, making national headlines, and led to a shutdown of all in-person activities. Many students responded diligently and in compliance with the mandate. While compliance with the COVID-19 mandates was outlined in the University’s behavioral compact, some students, including Matthew Samilow, expressed their fervent disapproval towards Cornell’s policies. To point out, Matthew Samilow’s argument is fallacious in regard to public health. Samilow offers multiple logical fallacies in his article and masks the one thing that does not need masking: the truth. 

Samilow explains the campus’ shift to “Alert Level Red” as a direct result of Cornell’s surveillance testing measures, which quantify the number of active SARS-CoV-2 cases on campus. However, Samilow failed to explain the reason for the uptick in cases leading to the campus shutdown in December. In a statement released early December, the University warned that students had traveled during Thanksgiving break and arrived back to campus carrying the Omicron variant. Combined with the waning immunity of the first two doses of the vaccine and the extreme infectiousness of the new variant, the virus began spreading like wildfire. Yet Samilow states, “We mandated masks and vaccines and have the worst outbreak yet,” implying that mask and vaccine mandates are not effective measures. He ignores the real reason for the viral surge, as well as the scientific facts which prove that masks and vaccines continue to be effective. The viral surge occurred due to student noncompliance with the mask mandate, whether that be at social gatherings or at other spaces on or off campus. A Sun article released soon before the surge criticized the decreased presence of mask wearing amongst the student body. 

In Samilow’s piece, there appears to be confusion as to why Cornell, like other universities such as Yale and Princeton, continues to test, identify and quantify SARS-CoV-2 cases and use this information as a determining factor for campus life considering 99 percent of the Cornell student body is vaccinated. The sole reason we heavily rely on a case centric approach for evaluating an outbreak is to use those statistics for modeling the probability of serious illness and death. This approach is not only an indicator of an outbreak on campus, but a preventative measure of future chaos. Sure, we only had eight hospitalizations within an infected population of 1500. But consider this: infections grow at an exponential trend given that the new variant is three times as contagious. If Cornell were to turn a blind eye, and prematurely conclude that the new variant has a lower probability of severe illness among vaccinated individuals, there could be more potential hospitalizations and deaths in the general Cornell population and greater Ithaca community than we have seen before; especially in unvaccinated and/or immunocompromised communities. 

So how do we, as students, justify one death within our community if it can be prevented by these safety measures? It appears that Samilow believes he can be the arbiter of the moral cutoffs between freedom and death among us. Case numbers are important; behind every number lies a person — in addition to the people around them. 

Samilow states that the Cornell administration is “ruining college” for its students through “cruel” and “woefully misguided” policies. However, with all of the principles and mandates in place, not one Cornell student or faculty member has died from COVID-19. Considering that Cornell chose to bring its students back to campus in fall 2020 and spring 2021 when most of the community was unvaccinated, this is objectively a tremendous achievement. There have been multiple deaths related to COVID-19 across other campuses — deaths that have elicited protests among students and faculty within those campuses. If Cornell has yet to experience any deaths from COVID-19, how exactly has the administration failed? What metric is Samilow using for success: the number of social events attended or the number of students surviving the pandemic?

Samilow so confidently suggests that the Cornell community ought to treat COVID-19 like the annual flu. It’s possible we are moving towards that reality. Though, how do we know there won’t be another variant? How do we know when it’s safe to treat COVID as an endemic illness entirely? The frank truth is that we’re not there yet. SARS-CoV-2 has become the brother illness that we all despise, rapidly mutating and evolving. Nonetheless, the past two years have been monumental in understanding the sociological and scientific implications of the novel virus. 

The innovation of a booster vaccine has granted us some protection and a new sense of normalcy. Yet, Samilow’s argument is contradictory as he portrays the vaccine to work/not work at his convenience. Initially, he mentions that we have to learn to cope with the virus now that “contracting COVID is far less dangerous.” However, it is only less dangerous because of the vaccines. Yet he proceeds to describe the vaccine as “less effective,” alluding that contracting the virus is inevitable, and thus a campus-shutdown is futile. Albeit, when it boils down to freedom on campus, a cease to the mask mandate and a sense of “normalcy,” he references the “power of vaccines.” Which is it? 

Like the rest of us, Samilow continues to express the ‘side effects’ of the pandemic; the lingering questions about how to manage the virus, the exhaustion of living in a pandemic. The actions Cornell takes in regard to public health are not entirely about us and our college experiences, however. It’s about our collegiate and greater Ithaca community. It’s about people who don’t have access to vaccines. It’s about those who are immunocompromised. It’s about loved ones who are currently in the hospital. It’s about preventing hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. It’s about our healthcare workers. It’s about acknowledging the risk that the virus still poses and adhering to scientific facts. 

We must remain patient until scientists and health officials determine when it’s completely safe to treat COVID as the new “flu” and return to our pre-COVID era; in times when we could smile with more than just the squint in our eyes. Remaining patient means that we may continue to miss out on the “normal college experience” while protecting our communities, families and friends. Unfortunately, Samilow, that means the fate of our slope day remains unclear. Thus unmasking the most important lesson of all: we must remain patient with uncertainty. 

Hugo Amador ’24 & Rebecca Sparacio ’24

Editor’s Note: As of Jan. 7, 2022, there has been at least one recorded death of a Cornell staff member due to COVID-19. As of Jan. 9, 2022, language in this article has been clarified.