Cornell University reported over 900 cases of Covid-19 among students this past week, with “a very high percentage” of them contracting the Omicron variant.

There have been four deaths so far, which the university revealed all occurred within older adults. Though their names were not revealed, The Tompkins County Health Department in Ithaca, N.Y., announced that the four people were from a nearby nursing home, and not part of the Cornell community.

To stymie a potential breakout beyond Cornell’s campus, the university has closed campus buildings to students, though staff and faculty and still using the spaces. Cornell officials have reportedly objected to the use of the phrase “shut down,” as they express the need to clarify their decision and the differences between today and March 2020, when students and staff were sent home.

The Ithaca campus houses around 25,600 students. Final exams have been moved online and students are allegedly allowed to leave the quarantined campus if they have received a negative test within the last 24 hours.

“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 announced.

While the school attempts to control a “red alert” event of Covid-19 activity, Cornell University must also take students’ needs over Winter Break into account, especially since the outbreak occurred so close to Christmas and final exams. Keeping students quarantined on campus would prevent them from traveling for the holidays. Allowing them to leave too soon could further spread Omicron across the United States.

Every student with the Omicron variant was reportedly vaccinated with two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, while some have also received their booster shots. According to Cornell, 97% of the student body is fully vaccinated, while employees must be fully vaccinated by Jan. 18.

Cornell University moved its final exams online as the school closes buildings amid hundreds of cases of the Omicron variant
Cornell University moved its final exams online as the school closes buildings amid hundreds of cases of the Omicron variant. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

The school had a mandatory vaccination policy for students entering the 2021-2022 school year, as well as an indoor mask mandate. Small exceptions were made for religious and medical reasons, and the unvaccinated students are required to go through surveillance testing. Boosters have not been required among the student body, as of the 2021-2022 school year.

“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 shot,” said Joel Malina, Vice President of Cornell University Relations.

He stated that the emergency measures being taken were to, “help students who have tested negative to return safely home for the winter break, and in an effort to limit the spread of the Omicron variant to vulnerable populations.”

Besides the dormitories, all university-wide events have been canceled, the libraries have been closed, the dining halls are working under a “grab-and-go” limited capacity, and the gyms and athletic facilities have been closed. Offices and labs remain open to staff and faculty, but students are not allowed to participate in any lab work at this time.

Cornell University’s last day of classes was Dec. 7, with the finals schedule running from Dec. 11 to Dec. 18.

“There is some evidence, though far from certain, that [Omicron] generally causes milder cases, particularly among vaccinated individuals,” said Cornell president Martha Pollack. “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.”

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