Cornell University abruptly shut down many campus activities Tuesday after finding significant preliminary evidence of the omicron variant amid a rapid spread of coronavirus cases at the school.
University officials moved final exams online, closed libraries and gyms at the Ithaca, N.Y., campus, and called off the university’s recognition ceremony for December graduates. The school had days earlier canceled student events.
Students who had not gotten a negative test within 48 hours were told to get tested — and encouraged to stay in their homes, “severely limiting interactions with others” until they got results, according to a university statement.
Martha E. Pollack, Cornell’s president, stressed in her message to campus Tuesday that more than 97 percent of students were free of the virus and that the campus had not seen serious cases of illness but that the administrators wanted to limit the spread of infections. To explain why the school was taking such restrictive measures when so few students were seriously ill, she shared some math:
“Consider one variant, let’s call it A, in which each person infects two others on average, and which causes serious illness in 1 percent of cases. After ten iterations of transmission, you’ll have about 1,000 cases, and 10 instances of serious illness. Now consider variant B, which is twice as infectious, so each person infects four others on average, but which causes serious illness only one-tenth as often, i.e., in only 0.1% of cases. Unchecked, over the same ten iterations of transmission, with variant B you’ll have more than a million cases, and about 1,000 individuals with serious illness.”
Many other factors come into play, she noted, but the administrators would continue to follow the science and seek to limit transmission.
Peter Frazier, an engineering professor and the lead expert who developed Cornell’s covid-19 response modeling, said officials saw an expected uptick in cases after Thanksgiving travel. But as cases began to fall, a new and unexpected spike arose.
Cornell’s coronavirus dashboard shows about 900 virus cases among students between Dec. 7 and Monday.
The school has two confirmed cases of omicron, but an increasing number that shows potential indicators of the variant. On Monday, after finding a large portion of the recent and growing number of cases among students had the hallmark of the omicron variant, Frazier said officials took action.