ITHACA, N.Y.—A team of Cornell professors, operating as a COVID-19 modeling team, have laid out three potential scenarios for the rest of the spring semester using a recently concluded study of COVID-19 cases that the school encountered during its fall return to school.

All three scenarios predict higher rates of infection among students (largely due to the new coronavirus variants), but deem the measures the school has introduced as suitable to address those infections and potential spread. It also recommends testing undergraduate students in athletics and Greek life three times per week, testing other undergraduates twice per week and testing grad and professional students once a week to control transmission and outbreaks, all of which the school has implemented this semester.

Read the full report (only 10 pages) at the bottom of this article.

Analyzing the Fall

The data available from three months of on-campus education has shown researchers that travel was the primary source of infection on campus in the fall, boosting a student’s risk of becoming infected by a factor of 8, according to the report, with predictions that risk would rise in the spring because of changes in “national prevalence and increased transmissibility of new variants.”

Athletes and those who participated in Greek life were over-represented among the group of students who tested positive compared to the amount of the overall student population those two groups make up, though this was predictable considering some of the statements the school had made during early outbreaks in September.

While the study does not include cases that have already been seen during the spring semester at Cornell, it says that its conclusions are “consistent with what we have seen so far during the early part of the spring semester.” Though vaccinations are not mentioned much in the report, that is because it predicts “few students” will be vaccinated during the spring semester—and obviously, the vaccine didn’t exist during the fall semester.

One key finding, addressing what had been a prominent fear among Tompkins County officials and residents alike, was that student cases did not cause community spread. In general, the study posits that a correlation doesn’t exist between student prevalence and prevalence in the general community—at least not one that was seen in the fall semester, when students were allowed to be on campus but were sent home after the Thanksgiving break to finish the grading period from home or learning remotely. There does not seem to be any evidence that community spread will become a larger issue during the spring semester.

“Fall data suggest that the number of cases in employees and the surrounding community are not influenced by prevalence in the student population, as transmission from students to non-student employees or community members was not observed during the fall semester,” according to the study.

Instead, the study attributes 75 percent of employee cases to family members and social gatherings away from campus. The study found a “strong correlation” between infection rates in the counties surrounding Ithaca and infection rates in faculty and staff.

If cases were transmitted by students, the study finds, they were transmitted to other students, with “almost all of these cases remaining restricted to this population.” More specifically, cases tended to remain within one of the three sub-groups they originated in: athletes and Greek life, other undergraduates, and grad or professional students.

Predicting the Spring

The team of researchers actually found that due to several new factors, reintroducing students here for the spring semester ran even more risk, or at least presented more challenges, than bringing them back in the fall had, due to “new virus variants, COVID fatigue, elevated prevalence in the surrounding region that began after Thanksgiving and a potential for elevated transmission during the winter.” Important to note is that cases are now falling around Tompkins County, which may signal better results than anticipated. Counter to that, the university believes the new testing measures introduced by the school were “well-positioned” to stem the problems the aforementioned new factors would present.

“We found that a student who traveled in the past two weeks had 8x higher odds of testing positive than if they did not travel,” the reports stated, continuing later that of the 86 positive cases among students found during the semester, more than 10 percent were “found immediately after a return from travel,” excluding those found upon arrival testing at the beginning of the semester. “Measures to reduce non-essential travel will reduce the number of infections brought to campus through this source.”

As for estimations of how this semester will go, the team composed three scenarios: nominal, optimistic and pessimistic, again all of which do not consider vaccinations or the effect of past infection-induced immunity. All of them predict a higher number of cases and a greater rate of infection during the spring semester, even in the optimistic scenario, which elevates transmission rates by 1.25x—the nominal scenario elevates it by 1.56x, and the pessimistic scenario elevates it by 1.96x. But the study doesn’t seem to be ringing any alarm bells concerning the spring semester, particularly with new testing measures the school has instituted.

With the new, more frequent testing measures in place (3x per week for athletics and Greek life, 2x per week for other undergraduates, 1x per week for grad and professional students), the study predicts better infection control centered on lower infections among athletes and Greek life students.

Matt Butler

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