This is a developing story. More details will be published when they are available.

Correction: an earlier headline on this story said Cornell’s campus is “shut down” entirely, but staff and faculty are still reporting to work. Facilites are being closed to students. More info below.

ITHACA, N.Y.—The Tompkins County Health Department reported four more deaths that were reported on Monday, Dec. 13, bringing the local death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic to 45 people. The four deaths were of older adults, the health department stated, clarifying that none of them are from the Cornell community. Three of the deaths occurred in local nursing homes. The Ithaca Voice is still trying to confirm which nursing homes the deaths occurred at.

Additionally, announced Tuesday morning, Cornell has closed many of its campus buildings to students after finding “evidence of the highly contagious Omicron variant in a significant number of Monday’s positive student samples.” Faculty and staff are still allowed to enter offices and work locations. [Clarification: This passage has been clarified after Cornell officials objected to the term “shut down.” The move is distinct from March 2020, when students and staff were sent home from campus.]

The school moved its alert level to “red,” signaling a high risk of spread among the school community. More information can be found on the school’s COVID dashboard (we’d love to provide it ourselves, but the page is consistently crashing due to traffic volume).

Final exams have been moved online and students are allowed to leave campus, while adhering to guidelines, if they are finished with final exams and have a negative test in the last two days. The school is instructing students who haven’t received a negative test in the last two days to take a test at their assigned location.

“Students are encouraged to stay in Ithaca, in their residences, until their test results are received, and severely limit interactions with others during that time,” the school states.

It is unclear yet how many cases were found overall at Cornell or how many are suspected to be from the Omicron variant, though the vast majority of cases appear to be in the undergraduate student community. There are over 450 active cases of COVID-19 among the Cornell student body, though that number is only updated as of Dec. 12. Despite the high case numbers, the school had maintained that in-person final exams would be safe until the announcement this morning.

“There is some evidence (though far from certain) that [Omicron] generally causes milder cases, particularly among vaccinated individuals,” wrote Cornell president Martha Pollack in a letter to the community, noting that cases among staff and faculty are still fairly low, though exact numbers weren’t given. “However, when you have high transmissibility, you’re going to have very high numbers of cases, and so even with lower rates of serious illness, outbreaks must be taken seriously.”

More from Pollack’s letter is below. Dormitories remain open, but the following have been impacted:

  • 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.

Faculty and staff are still required to undergo surveillance testing if they are already enrolled in the testing program.

Pollack said that cases among students are still mild and have not been found to be severe, though she said the overall spread informed the decision to close campus and move online because the chances of a severe case continue to rise as the number of cases rises. Pollack’s full statement is here, in which she calls the move “extremely dispiriting.”

The Tompkins County Health Department reported an additional 193 positive cases, a continuation of an eye-popping rise in positive tests that leaves the county with 866 active COVID-19 cases. It is not clear how much crossover exists between the health department and Cornell’s testing numbers, though that will likely become more evident when Cornell updates its dashboard. Ten people are currently hospitalized in the county.

More info on the Red alert status on Cornell’s campus here:

  • High Risk category means that there has been a significant increase in cases with limited quarantine and/or local hospital capacity.
  • Students, faculty, staff and visitors must wear masks at all times indoors as well as outdoors when they are not able to physically distance.
  • Surveillance testing may extend to vaccinated students, faculty and staff and will continue for unvaccinated individuals.
  • Classroom and lab capacity may be reduced or reconfigured and classes may move online.
  • Gyms and other facilities may temporarily close and dining halls and libraries may have reduced capacity and distancing requirements.
  • Cornell-sponsored events and student activities or gatherings may be limited or moved fully online.
  • Travel for business related to Cornell is permitted but subject to location-based travel restrictions.
  • Individuals returning from personal or business-related travel are required to obtain a negative COVID test before returning to campus buildings and facilities or before they resume surveillance testing.
  • Symptomatic individuals are not permitted to visit surveillance testing facilities.

Matt Butler

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

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...