ITHACA, N.Y.—At the end of December, Cornell University announced it would be requiring all students, faculty and staff to receive a booster to their COVID-19 vaccines by Jan. 30, 2022, following a significant Omicron outbreak at the end of the fall semester totaling approximately 1,600 positive cases despite the university’s 97% vaccination rate.

Cornell is not the only university to require both COVID-19 booster shots for the spring semester. Locally, Ithaca College and Tompkins Cortland Community College are among the list of more than 150 colleges and universities across the country that are requiring boosters for the upcoming semester.

During the weeks following Cornell’s announcement, an open letter addressed to Cornell University President Martha Pollack and the Cornell Board of Trustees was crafted on behalf of students, parents, alumni, faculty and staff at the university. Found here, the letter, which currently has 783 signatures, requests the university reconsider its booster mandate and instead make it a recommendation.

The letter urges that scientific, ethical and legal considerations must be weighed and revisited as the pandemic unfolds and states that its endorsers believe Cornell has overlooked recent evolving scientific data, including a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study finding that Omicron is transmitted similarly between both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.

On Jan. 6 the Cornell community received an email from the university that said “Our focus needs to shift from counting positive cases to minimizing serious health risks.” The letter concluded from this that Cornell recognizes that the virus will continue to spread within the population regardless of booster status. The letter also argues that positive tests and natural infections within the community are a natural defense that Cornell is overlooking, citing a Dec. 2021 New England Journal of Medicine article finding that “The rate of confirmed infection was lower in the booster group than in the nonbooster group by a factor of approximately 10.” 

During the Jan. 12 faculty and staff town hall meeting, Pollock discussed the email sent to the campus community and said that the goal is to prevent serious illness while providing students with the best possible residential experience, while recognizing that COVID-19 will inevitably spread on campus and is shifting from a pandemic to an endemic.

Additionally, the letter questions why a third round of vaccinations is required when it might come with side effects greater than what a student may experience with a COVID-19 infection — a common refrain among those who are opposed to mandates.

“As many students test positive, they are, in essence, receiving a natural booster based on the very latest variants of the virus,” the letter reads, going on to argue that a blanket mandate may be “misinterpreting eligibility as a directive” on Cornell’s part, though the CDC’s current recommendation suggests that “everyone 12 years and older” are eligible and should receive a third dose.

That seems to be the root of the letter — against a booster mandate, but allowing for the efficacy of a booster recommendation, differentiating it from a conventional anti-vaccination stance.

Dana Stagel-Plowe, parent of a current student and a 1992 Cornell alum in support of the letter, argued “We oppose Cornell’s mandate because it ignores the most recent scientific data and common sense. What is Cornell’s rationale for mandating booster injections that don’t benefit (and may harm) our students and are based on prior variants that now account for less than 5% of U.S. cases, according to the CDC?”

The letter closes by urging consideration of new data on COVID and the available vaccines to change the requirements to students.

“I would like to see Cornell recognize the minuscule risk to young, healthy students and stop requiring medical behavior of them,” said Anita Graf, a former Cornell PhD student who supports the letter. “They’ve all been vaccinated at this point anyway and have had all manner of behavior imposed on them for two years, and cases are still rising.”

Stangel-Plowe, who gained media traction last year for quitting her teaching job over critical race theory concerns, said she hopes Cornell “will engage in productive dialogue with us to address our questions and concerns, and adopt a common-sense booster recommendation, rather than a one-size fits all booster mandate.”

Cornell University spokesperson Jeffery Martin said the school was not prepared to make a statement at this time.

CORRECTION: a previous version of this article did not link the CDC’s study.

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...