What is the threshold for moving to Red Alert Level and what are those choices guided by? Where are undergraduates quarantining and how do we limit the spread?

Date: September 2021


Dear Deans,

What is the threshold you are using for moving classes online/moving to “Red alert” level?

What science or metrics are these choices guided by?

With 185 quarantine rooms and over 300 new cases last week, where are undergraduate students quarantining if they test positive? I’ve heard from graduate RAs that undergraduates are being told to “isolate” in their dorm rooms alongside their COVID-negative roommates if the roommates are vaccinated. What is the scientific basis for doing this?

We have plenty of evidence that the vaccine is not 100% effective against infection, and if students are forced to live next to their COVID-positive roommates, how are we supposed to limit the spread of the virus? Will students with COVID-positive roommates continue going to in-person classes?

–Wondering about quarantines


Dear Wondering,

The university has said it would move to “Red Status” if there is a “significant increase in incidence with limited quarantine, isolation, and/or local hospital capacity.” Currently, new cases are decreasing from a daily recent peak of 52 to nine-14 cases per day. While that’s higher than anyone hopes to see, the university is carefully watching the trends to see if infections continue a slow decline or possibly spike back up if people let their guard down. 

Isolation room capacity is at just about 50%, so capacity is not a limiting factor at this time. Last fall, many students were required to quarantine if they had been in contact with a confirmed positive case. Unlike Fall 2020, this fall, according to Cornell’s Academic Policies, Instruction, & Resources website, “fully vaccinated individuals do not need to quarantine after contact with someone who tests positive unless they have symptoms.”

Isolation rooms are available in Balch Hall and the Cayuga Blu Hotel. Students who have tested positive should not be asked or allowed to share a room with someone who is not positive, however, some of the isolation rooms do have shared bathrooms. 

There is also reasonable capacity in the local hospital. The current number of occupied beds, both ICU and adult in-patient, are near the 2021 average. You may recall this was a real concern in 2020 because the incidence of severe COVID-19 requiring hospitalization was high before the vaccines became widespread. The CDC reports that the current vaccines provide exceptional protection against severe COVID. I’ve found the data tables on the Tompkins County Health Department to be informative for understanding local trends and patterns. 

If the number of Cornell cases trends sharply higher or there are clusters of unexplained cases that might be associated with classroom transmission, President Pollack said in her September 2nd message that “we would need to implement additional restrictions, up to and including having all students quarantine in place and moving all courses online, or even shutting the campus down as we did in March of 2020.” That same message reaffirms the university commitment to take necessary steps, informed by science, to protect the community.


Jason Kahabka
Associate Dean for Administration