ITHACA, N.Y. –– Cornell University has changed it’s COVID-19 “alert level” to yellow today after 74 positive cases have been identified throughout the student body in the last week. The “yellow” alert signifies a “low to moderate risk” for increased transmission. The last time the alert was raised was early February after a cluster of cases was discovered amongst students.

According to a statement from the university, “the increase in cases is primarily related to a lack of adherence to public health measures, including mask wearing and physical distancing, as well as student gatherings and travel outside of the region.”

In a letter to the campus community, Cornell President Martha Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff identified that the majority of cases have been linked to first-year students living on North Campus, Greek-life organizations, athletic teams, on- and off-campus parties and again, travel outside of the Ithaca area. The two went on to warn of repercussions should the trend in increased cases continue.

“If current trends were to continue, we would soon be forced to move to Alert Level Orange and all in-person gatherings could be prohibited; gyms and recreation centers could close; all courses could move to fully online instruction; and students could be required to stay in their rooms or apartments, except to get food or go for testing,” the letter states. “After that, the only remaining recourse would be to send all students back to their permanent homes – an action that no one wants to see happen.”

Students are required, as part of the school’s return to campus plan, to sign a “behavioral compact” promising to not engage in COVID unsafe activities or behaviors. It is unclear whether any punitive action has been taken against students in this latest cluster who have broken it.

Moreover, the letter from administrators has accused students of not only refusing to comply with the compact, but also with contact tracing –– providing no or false information on potential close contacts of infected individuals.

“These students may think they are protecting their friends by not identifying them as contacts, but they are, in fact, putting themselves and others at risk, including the most vulnerable among us,” Pollack and Kotlikoff’s letter states. “Remember: health conditions of immunocompromised individuals are not always visible. Cooperating with contact tracing makes the whole community, including your friends and loved ones, safer.”

In response to the most recent uptick in infections, public health officials at the university are taking the opportunity to remind students of the following safety precautions:

  • New York state requires everyone to wear a face covering when in public and unable to maintain physical distancing. In addition, Cornell has specific guidelines about when face coverings are required when on campus, both indoors and outside.
  • Face masks should completely cover your nose and mouth and fit snugly against your face. Reusable face coverings should be routinely washed depending on the frequency of use.
  • Practice physical distancing (staying at least 6 feet apart from others).
  • Avoid gatherings; limit close contact among groups of people.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol if washing is not an option.
  • Stay home and avoid contact with others when you are sick; call ahead before seeking medical care at Cornell Health or elsewhere.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.

For more information related to prevention and care, visit Cornell’s COVID-19 website. The website also includes the university’s COVID-19 tracking dashboard, which is updated Monday-Friday to include information about testing and positive cases within the campus community.

Anna Lamb

Anna Lamb is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at alamb@ithacavoice.com