Cornell University students say COVID outbreak response not fast enough

The criticism comes amid an uptick in cases.

December 17, 2021, 6:14 PM

As of Friday, Cornell University had 1,442 positive cases of COVID-19 this week, according to the university's COVID-19 website. Despite a 97% vaccination rate on campus, the university said it had reported a spike in cases and evidence of the omicron variant in a significant number of the positive results.

Now some students are accusing the school of not responding to COVID-19 outbreaks quickly enough.

"Ninety-seven percent of the campus is fully vaccinated, a large portion of them have booster shots and there's mandatory masking, and we still have this uptick," said Joe Silverstein, a student at Cornell.

Cornell University president Martha Pollack said in a note to students Tuesday that evidence suggests the omicron variant generally results in milder cases, particularly among vaccinated people.

But Pollack also acknowledged in the note omicron may be significantly more transmissible than delta and other variants.

COVID-19 cases began surging on Saturday and Sunday. On Tuesday, Cornell moved all final exams online, canceled all university activities (including December graduation), closed libraries and encouraged students to pick up "grab-and-go" food in the dining halls.

But some students say the response should have been quicker.

Marguerite Pacheco, a Ph.D student, said the outbreak has been very stressful and disagrees with the administration's decision to go ahead with in-person finals after the uptick in the number of cases.

PHOTO: Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
Walter Bibikow/Getty Images

"If there's that many students testing positive, despite being vaccinated, it is going to spread to other people extremely quickly," Pacheco said. "The decision to try and make finals happen in person just seemed really kind of ridiculous."

"It seems like the second that, you know, that there are cases happening in vaccinated students of that magnitude, you need to assume that it is just going to catch like wildfire," Pacheco said.

Shivali Halabe, an undergraduate student from West Virginia, said that despite the increase in cases, the school went ahead with mass gatherings.

"There were definitely a lot of end of semester events going on, like formals and impromptu parties and things like that," Halabe said.

As part of its plan to prevent the spread of the virus among students, Cornell had housing where students living on-campus who tested positive for the virus could stay for the duration of their quarantine.

The university used to have a section on its COVID website that tracked how many rooms it still had available for quarantine housing. Sometime in the past week, the tracker was removed from the website, Silverstein said.

"In addition to dedicated space on campus, we also have capacity at local hotels to accommodate quarantine and isolation needs for our students. We no longer track quarantine/isolation capacity on the public COVID-19 dashboard because we are able to expand capacity at any time through securing space at hotels," a representative for Cornell told ABC News.

Students who lived off campus say they were told to quarantine in place, even if they had roommates.

"I think some of their roommates were also like, really, really worried and resorted to spending like a lot of time in campus buildings to stay away." Halabe said.

In a statement, a Cornell spokesperson said the university is working closely with the county's health department to coordinate on isolation protocols and to assist students who have tested positive.

"According to the health department, isolation can be done in communal living spaces where a student has their own bedroom and shares a bathroom with others. We trust that our community including students, faculty and staff will continue to follow public health guidance," Cornell told ABC News.

"Because of the high volume of positive cases and contact tracing activity, officials at the Tomkins County Health Department are continuing to prioritize case calls to those who are over 65 years of age and children in K-12 settings," Cornell said.

In just her group of friends, Halabe said at least three people tested positive for COVID. She said they began experiencing symptoms midweek.

One of her friends who tested positive lived off campus with roommates,

Moreover, oversized classes, some with as many as 1,000 students in a room is also worrying, some of the students say.

"Having to take finals with that many people when this many cases were going around was putting a lot of stress on students. And a lot of students have been asking Cornell to be a little bit more lenient about policies -- take students health and mental health into consideration more often," Halabe said.

"We also understand that the pandemic has caused significant stress. Our community frequently receives and are encouraged to take advantage of wellness and mental health resources on campus and in the surrounding community. Our students, faculty and staff have shown tremendous resilience over the nearly two years that COVID-19 has been a part of our daily lives," a representative for the university said in a statement.

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