Cornell University Has Over 900 New COVID Cases and a 'Very High Percentage' Are Omicron Variant
Despite a 97% on-campus vaccination rate, Cornell University reported 898 new COVID-19 cases among students at its Ithaca, New York campus during the week of Dec. 7-13, a "significant number" of which the school has identified as the omicron variant.
According to the school's COVID-19 dashboard, 33 faculty and staff have also tested positive, bringing the number up to 930 cases.
On Wednesday, Vice President for University Relations Joel Malina said in a statement to PEOPLE, "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."
Malina added that "preliminary, initial screening results indicate that the variant now accounts for a very high percentage of our positive COVID-19 cases. The presence of the initial omicron variant coincides with an unusually high degree of transmission among vaccinated students after Thanksgiving travel and at the end of the semester."
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The alarming transmission rate has forced the university to move into the "Alert Level Red" zone, meaning there has been a "significant increase with limited quarantine, isolation and/or hospital capacity." The alert level — the school's highest — has prompted it to shut down its Ithaca campus, shift final exams online and cancel the December commencement ceremony.
Despite the substantial presence of the omicron variant, "We have not seen evidence of significant disease in our students to date," Malina said. "The measures we are taking to assist those students who have tested positive to complete their mandated 10-day isolation periods, and to help students who have tested negative to return safely home for the winter break, are in an effort to limit the spread of the omicron variant to vulnerable populations."
Cornell University has in place a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for its on-campus students, unless exempt due to medical or religious reasons. Faculty and staff, regardless of working on-campus or remote, are also required to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 18 unless medically or religiously exempt.
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Additionally, the school has a mask mandate which states that all faculty, staff, students and visitors must wear masks when indoors; or outdoors if physical distancing is not possible, regardless of vaccination status."
As of Monday, 26,008 students have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine depending on vaccine type, while 13,311 faculty and staff are considered vaccinated.
The university is also encouraging students and staff to get their booster shots.
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The first major, real-world study of patients infected with omicron was released Monday, and found that it mostly led to mild illnesses such as dry cough, muscle aches and pains, and nasal congestion, but that two doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine prevented infection only 30% of the time.
Top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said Wednesday, though, that a third, booster dose should provide strong protection against infection. He urged people to get vaccinated if they haven't yet, and for those who received two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines more than six months ago to immediately get a booster dose. Fauci also said that the pharmachutical companies will likely not need to formulate an omicron-specific booster dose.
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