Over the last few days, Melissa Montejo has felt a familiar feeling of nervousness and uncertainty. The Cornell University junior had been watching the numbers of coronavirus cases tick up in the surrounding county, and several friends texted her to tell her they’d been exposed. She knew that Cornell would update its dashboard on Monday evening, so she logged on around 5 p.m. to check the university’s case count.
A red bar appeared across the top of her screen. “CURRENT CORNELL COVID-19 ALERT LEVEL CODE RED: HIGH RISK,” it said. There were 469 active cases on campus.
The next morning, the university president, Martha E. Pollack, announced that the campus would nearly shut down. Finals moved online. In-person activities, such as sports events and a graduation ceremony planned for Saturday, were canceled. Libraries and gyms were closed, and students were encouraged to take their meals to-go from the dining halls. Students could leave campus if they had tested negative for Covid-19 within the last 48 hours. Students who didn’t know their status should get a test as soon as possible. By Tuesday evening, the number of active cases on campus was 903.
Through preliminary testing, Pollack wrote, the university had identified evidence of the Omicron variant in “a significant number” of students who tested positive on Monday. She stressed that evidence of the new, highly contagious variant was preliminary and that the university was waiting for further testing to confirm its presence.
Montejo was on her way to the dining hall when she got the news. “It was almost giving me flashbacks to last year,” she said. “I was just thinking, Where do we go from here? Is anything going to change for next semester?”
Last year, Cornell brought students back to campus, but with limited in-person activities and socializing. Though case numbers remained relatively low, other colleges reported soaring case counts and several faculty and staff members and students died.
This year was supposed to be different. News from campuses about the virus had been mostly quiet in the fall, with most students vaccinated and case numbers staying relatively low. At Cornell, the alert level was green just last week, indicating very little risk of transmission.
Then came the Omicron variant, which scientists believe is much more transmissible than previous variants. In addition to Cornell, George Washington and Georgetown Universities said this week that they had detected the Omicron variant in their communities. GWU, along with Smith College and Wesleyan, Brown, and Syracuse Universities, are among the small number of colleges that will require a Covid-19 booster shot. Meanwhile, dozens of colleges have revoked employee vaccine requirements since a federal judge blocked the Biden administration’s order that required some colleges, as institutions that contract with the federal government, to issue vaccine mandates.
“We feel like we’re sort of at the tip of the spear,” said Benjamin Cornwell, chair of the sociology department at Cornell. “Campus is eerily empty. It’s like being in an airport at night — and it should be.”
In the spring of 2020, when the coronavirus was raging and campuses had only recently made the abrupt pivot to remote work, Cornwell was a co-author on a paper that shed light on how interconnected college campuses are, making them potential vectors for the virus.
“That’s all coming back to me very fresh,” he said Tuesday.
But at that time, he and Kim Weeden, his co-author, used data on how much students crossed paths with one another in classrooms throughout the day. Since then, Cornwell said, colleges have come to believe that the virus spreads more in dorms and at social gatherings than in classrooms. He speculated that the recent surge at Cornell was related to travel after the Thanksgiving break and parties that typically happen at the end of the semester.
At Cornell, “virtually every case” of the Omicron variant was identified in fully vaccinated students, Joel Malina, vice president for university relations, said in an emailed statement. “We have not seen evidence of significant disease in our students to date,” he said.
Hannah Potter, a senior, did not wait for Cornell to tell her to go home. Before the red alert was issued, she saw students circulating rumors on social media that the case count had shot up. Though she’d planned to spend this week in Ithaca, she got in her car on Monday with her boyfriend and they drove the 15 hours to her home in Missouri.
“Seems like there was a lot of community spread,” Potter said. Rather than exams, her finals were papers, so she had some flexibility. “I have no real reason to wait around. And if the numbers are really that high, it’s not worth risking it.”
Montejo, the junior, lives in California and has a reservation on a Saturday flight. Her plan is to lay low for the next few days and hope she doesn’t test negative so she can go home. But she has another person to worry about. Her sister is a freshman at Cornell, and they agreed with their mom that if either tested positive, they would stay in Ithaca together.
“You want to focus this time of year on holidays, being with family,” she said. “It’s just stressful.”