In Aug. 2020, I thought that Cornell’s return to campus would be a disaster. Watching friends go back to Ithaca, I was convinced it would take three weeks for cases to skyrocket. Thankfully, through aggressive testing, isolation and contact-tracing — combined with a sizable amount of luck — the university managed to keep cases low enough that most students could be on campus for the past three semesters. The presence of vaccines even made some moments these last two semesters feel like the pre-COVID-19 normal. And, as we approach two years since pandemic restrictions were introduced in the United States, President Pollack’s recent statements include commitments about learning “to live with the virus.”
Unfortunately, the Code Red calamity in December demonstrates not only that there is no escaping COVID-19, but the perils of what happens when “live with the virus” becomes “ignore the virus.” By reducing testing capacity and frequency, the University made itself less resilient and nimble in the face of a potential new variant like Omicron. Given that COVID-19 isn’t going away anytime soon, Cornell’s administration should take decisive action to improve its public health capacity, indoor air policies and logistical preparation for the next time there’s a surge. If it doesn’t, the Ithaca campus will not only consistently marginalize immunocompromised community members, but expose itself to significant periodic disruptions akin to what occurred in December.
In terms of public health capacity, the marker most immediately relevant to COVID-19 is testing. Through the spring 2021 semester, the University’s ability to test the vast majority of community members at least twice a week represented an impressive logistical effort. And yet, through the summer and fall months, there were fewer test sites and gown-donning individuals to administer tests on-campus. In addition, the requirement was lowered to once a week for most undergraduates and even abolished altogether for vaccinated graduate students. Although this may have made sense back in May, its drawbacks were clear in September and disastrous in December. And yet, less than a month after announcing more intensive testing requirements to return to campus, administrators are now scaling back testing once again.
Instead of repeating this mistake, the University should maintain the testing capacity it had before vaccines existed, even if the methods aren’t exactly the same. For example, the Omicron surge has shown the potential value of rapid tests when frequently used by an entire community. At the same time, it has demonstrated the need for consistent demand to keep supply chains operating with sufficient capacity to weather a surge of positives. On this front, the University could kill multiple birds with one stone.
By purchasing rapid tests in sufficient bulk, Cornell could reduce pressure on the testing sites it runs, greatly increase its overall capacity and provide the sort of consistency that rapid test suppliers might need to keep producing. If community members could access at least one rapid test each day, not only might cases be caught earlier, but people hosting events of any size could ask attendees to take a test immediately before showing up. It might not discover every case, but it could help reduce exactly the kind of wildfire-like spread through campus that occured last semester, likely due to end-of-semester formals and parties.
According to the COVID-19 hierarchy of controls, even more basic than the administrative control of testing and isolation is the engineering control of ventilation. This is especially important given the overwhelming evidence that COVID-19 is airborne and is easily transmitted in confined and crowded indoor spaces. Although the University mentions ventilation on its Facilities and Transportation page, it’s not described in sufficient detail for being two years into the pandemic. Furthermore, the citation of natural ventilation through open windows in presumably older buildings prompts serious questions as we go through the coldest part of winter. As somebody who had three classes in one such building last semester, I can’t imagine having those same windows open in our recent weather.
The University should ensure that older buildings are updated so windows are not the only option for ventilation during the cold Ithaca winter months. As it prepares to complete these tasks, it should also be more transparent with ventilation capacity. Beyond putting information online, the university can place CO2 filters in every room on campus so that people can tell for themselves whether the air they’re breathing is safe or not and advocate accordingly.
No matter how much planning is done, though, it seems inevitable that there will be more surges in our future. One thing is clear: the University needs to improve its protocols for when cases increase. The current decision-making process is not only opaque, but seems to be subject to specific operational considerations — such as conducting in-person finals — that have no bearing on the spread of COVID-19.
Clearly-defined thresholds that trigger automatic responses, such as re-imposing indoor mask mandates, increasing testing frequency and even temporarily moving classes to a virtual setting, could be incredibly useful. Such a system would give community members clear consequences so they can adjust their behavior, help reduce cases earlier and prevent the goalpost shifting for alert levels.
What exactly those drastic measures are is another logistical consideration that it is obvious the University needs to plan for. When COVID-19 was rampant during the first weekend of December finals, it quickly became apparent that there was no consideration of what would happen when the Statler and area hotels overwhelmed, nor how all students would access testing they needed to leave. This isn’t just relevant for campus — I know multiple people who accidentally brought Omicron home with them at the end of last semester. Cornell’s lack of preparation could very well have seeded additional outbreaks in other parts of the country as well, and easily could in the future if nothing more is done.
These proposals might sound like overreactions to many. I know many people who have joined the “vaccinated and done” club as some have coined it, and I’m not frustrated with them. In fact, this is exactly why we need robust public health responses and planning. On an individual level, going to bars and restaurants involves what should probably be a tolerable amount of risk for anybody who is ostensibly healthy and boosted like me.
However, public health is not an individual enterprise. As last semester’s disruptions and the thousands of lives being lost nationally each day from a “milder” variant show, individual-level risk has less meaning when the disease threatens the entire public. If the word “public” is meant to include the immunocompromised, then public health needs to act like it. This is not to mention the risks for all of us — immunocompromised or not — from rampant spread. Last semester, a fully vaccinated friend of mine got COVID-19 and faced major impacts on her lungs which lasted months. Furthermore, one potential way that variants can develop is through a prolonged battle against the virus in an immunocompromised individual. If it wasn’t obvious before, it should be clear now — protecting the most vulnerable among us protects all of us.
Although this should be a guiding principle for all realms of public policy, it is especially relevant for COVID-19 policy from now on. This virus may now be endemic for vaccinated people, but there are no guarantees that the next variant is less severe. Furthermore, this is likely not the last pandemic we will experience in our lifetimes. If we want to live with this virus — and I mean live, not die by the thousands in hospitals that are understaffed and overworked — we have to actually take the steps to make it possible, starting on Cornell’s campus.
Giancarlo Valdetaro is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Far Above runs every other Monday this semester.