(Photo of Cornell's Arts Quad, courtesy of the university)

ITHACA, N.Y. — Cornell University announced Thursday that it is officially moving to its “yellow” alert level on its COVID-19 dashboard, meaning that “incidence of the virus remains low, but indicators show increased or potential for increase in transmission.”

The school issued a statement from Provost Michael Kotlikoff, saying that the first of two clusters at Cornell has grown to 39 positive cases, as had been announced yesterday, with more likely to come. There are also eight additional Cornell cases that the provost says are not cluster-related, making the total 47 active cases on campus.

“We expect the size of the clusters to grow further over the coming days as we learn the results of pending tests,” Kotlikoff said. He added that the school does not believe the infections have spread outside of the student community. Of the 39 case cluster, 36 have been found to be student-athletes, and Kotlikoff said all people who tested positive are in isolation.

“While these clusters represent approximately only 0.1 percent of our campus population, and a very small percentage of our student-athletes, it points to a dangerous disregard by a group of students for the behavioral guidelines that we established to protect the public health of our community,” Kotlikoff said.

A second cluster among Cornell and Tompkins Cortland Community College (TC3) was identified with eight cases on Wednesday, though the amount of crossover between the clusters is unclear at this time.

Other tenets of yellow alert level include frequency of testing may increase for certain populations, possible reduction in on-campus space capacity and student gatherings limited to 10 people or fewer, with social distancing and masks required. Student gatherings had previously been limited to 30 people or fewer, with social distancing and masks required.

Kotlikoff said the school has instituted new testing practices to further find any infections connected to the student-athlete cluster.

“As soon as we learned of the outbreak, we implemented, in consultation with TCHD, an additional layer to our testing protocol: adaptive testing, screening not just close contacts but other students who we felt might be impacted, including members of some of our athletic teams,” Kotlikoff wrote. “It is in part because of this aggressive, adaptive testing that we have been able to catch so many cases.”

“Significant consequences” are being handed down to students who display “irresponsible behavior and disregard for others,” Kotlikoff said, which included campus bans and suspensions. The continuation of the trend of positive cases could lead to severe changes in Cornell’s plans.

“To be clear, however—all is not well,” he continued. “Far from it […] There is potential for just a few small student gatherings to destroy all our plans for an in-person semester. Although we are currently still in a manageable situation, the rapid growth of cases in these recent clusters puts us perilously close to needing to take drastic action, such as moving to wholly online classes for a period of time.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com