Cornell University called a "red alert" for students -- moving all finals online, cancelling on-campus events and closing facilities -- as COVID-19 infections rose more 20x in just a week and the omicron variant began showing up in "significant" numbers.
The university reported 276 on-campus positives Monday, the latest day for which data was available, fully 23 times what it had on Dec. 6.
In fact, between Saturday and Monday the university had twice as many cases as it had in the first 10 days of December combined.
"Since our Saturday message, our surveillance testing has continued to identify the rapid spread of COVID-19 among our student population," university president Martha Pollack said in a statement posted online Tuesday. "While faculty and staff case numbers currently remain low, just last evening our COVID-19 testing lab team identified evidence of the highly contagious Omicron variant in a significant number of Monday’s positive student samples."
Cornell University COVID outbreak rule changes
Pollack's letter listed a number of changes as a result of the increased alert status:
- All university activities involving undergraduates (including events and social gatherings) and all university-sponsored events (including winter celebrations) are canceled.
- The December 18 recognition ceremony for December graduates is canceled.
- Students utilizing Cornell Dining are strongly encouraged to “grab-and-go”; if you must eat near others, please do so at a distance.
- Libraries are closed to students.
- Athletics competitions on Sunday are canceled. Fitness centers and gyms are closed to students.
- Offices and labs remain open, but undergraduate students should not participate in any work-study or lab work.
The CDC said Tuesday that the omicron variant of COVID-19 is increasing in prevalence in New York and New Jersey at about 4x the rate in the rest of the country.
What that ultimately means is still unclear, though. A study out of South Africa released Tuesday morning suggested that at least some vaccines were far less effective at preventing infection with omicron -- but hospitalizations are also much lower than they were with the delta variant, suggesting it's possible that omicron causes more mild illness.
Pollack acknowledged that early evidence in her letter but said caution was still warranted.
"(The) point is that higher transmissibility leads to exponential growth, which outweighs the linear decrease in percent of severe cases. To avoid this type of situation, it is imperative not to let such infections run unchecked, but to take steps that limit transmission," she wrote.