How Omicron Pushed Cornell Into Red Alert

A huge COVID outbreak has shut down the Ivy League campus and could be a sign of what’s to come.

Photo: Jay Yuan/Shutterstock
Photo: Jay Yuan/Shutterstock

When Emmah Bashir heard on Tuesday that Cornell University would be shutting down campus due to an explosion in COVID-19 cases including Omicron, she started to retrace her steps over the last week. Bashir, a junior, hadn’t gone out much, but she had sat for an in-person exam. Still, she’d tested negative as recently as Sunday.

“I was like, ‘I have an extra QuickVue at-home rapid test. Why don’t I just do it?’ Because I had a little bit of congestion,” Bashir said. “So, I did the rapid test and it came back positive.”

After taking the at-home test, Bashir walked 20 minutes to the campus health center where she took another COVID-19 test. Though Bashir hasn’t gotten the results yet, she assumes she is going to be among the hundreds of positive cases identified on Cornell’s campus in recent days. After a quiet semester with few positive cases between about 40,000 students, faculty, and staff, the university recorded nearly 1,200 cases in the past week, according to the school’s COVID-19 dashboard. One sophomore told local NewsChannel 9 all seven of her roommates tested positive. Among those cases, the university’s laboratory found a “significant number” were the highly transmissible Omicron variant, prompting school officials to shut down campus for the remainder of the winter semester. The speed with which COVID spread across the Ivy League school’s campus may be a snapshot of what’s to come nationally as Omicron becomes dominant across the country.

“Virtually every case of the Omicron variant to date has been found in fully vaccinated students, a portion of whom had also received a booster shoot,” the school’s vice president for university relations, Joel Malina, said in a statement to NPR. According to the school, 97 percent of the school’s on-campus population has been vaccinated.

Cornell isn’t the only school to take action in the face of Omicron. Princeton University, New York University, Middlebury College, DePaul University, and Southern New Hampshire University have all switched to remote learning or moved exams online for at least the rest of the winter semester. But Cornell stands out for doing so after identifying rapid transmission of the virus on its campus. This is the first time the school has been on alert level red since students moved back to campus in the fall of 2020.

Administrators recently sent out an email announcing a move to code yellow due to a rapid increase in cases. The university was a week away from its holiday break when it went on “alert level red,” pushing final exams online, closing fitness centers, canceling athletic events, and turning away most visitors. Some offices and labs remained open. “We should have been shut down from the time we got the first email just because of how severe it is. And, of course, the new variant,” said junior Jenniviv Bansah. “No one really knows in detail Omicron’s full effects and so we thought there would be more precaution in moving closer to that shutdown decision.”

Senior Anuli Ononye’s parents flew her and her brother, who is also a student at Cornell, home to California as soon as they heard about the recent rise in cases. “I think a lot of it has to do with students going home for Thanksgiving because cases were a lot lower before,” said Ononye.

“While I want to provide reassurance that, to date, we have not seen severe illness in any of our infected students, we do have a role to play in reducing the spread of the disease in the broader community,” university president, Martha Pollack, wrote in a statement to students.

While it’s still too early to know how virulent Omicron is, all signs point to the variant being considerably more transmissible than Delta and that it significantly erodes protection provided by vaccines and prior infection. Those two factors are why Norway is on partial lockdown and why estimates out of the U.K. suggest that as many as 200,000 people could have been infected on Monday alone — to say nothing of South Africa’s harrowing climb in new cases. “The point is that higher transmissibility leads to exponential growth,” Pollack wrote to students.

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How Omicron Pushed Cornell Into Red Alert