‘Virtually every’ COVID omicron case at NY college was in fully vaccinated, official says

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Cornell University is seeing an uptick in coronavirus cases and has detected the “highly contagious” omicron variant on campus, particularly in fully vaccinated individuals, according to campus officials.

Between Dec. 7 and 13, the Ivy League school in Ithaca, New York, reported 883 students testing positive for COVID-19, its online dashboard shows.

“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,” Joel M. Malina, the school’s vice president for university relations, said in a statement provided to McClatchy News.

On Dec. 13, Cornell’s COVID-19 testing lab found “evidence of the highly contagious Omicron variant in a significant number of Monday’s positive student samples,” university President Martha E. Pollack said in a letter to the campus community.

Out of the students infected with COVID-19, the school has “not seen severe illness” as of Dec. 14, Pollack assured.

The on-campus population of Cornell is 97% fully vaccinated, according to its virus data tracker that has recorded 26,008 students and 13,311 faculty and staff members who are fully vaccinated.

Pollack noted that the evidence of omicron, first identified by South African researchers on Nov. 24, is “preliminary.”

“PCR testing has identified its hallmark (the so-called S-gene dropout) in a substantial number of virus samples,” Pollack said. “While we must await confirmatory sequencing information to be sure that the source is Omicron, we are proceeding as if it is.”

She added that the detection of omicron has prompted the university to enact an “Alert Level Red” to “limit further spread” ahead of the end of the fall semester.

This means that the school’s final exams are now online as of Dec. 14, the ceremony for December graduates on the 18 is canceled and all undergraduate events are canceled, according to Pollack.

Malina said that “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.”

Cornell’s president acknowledged that some might wonder why the school is “imposing such serious steps” and said it is “obviously extremely dispiriting” to do so in the letter.

She said that “we do have a role to play in reducing the spread of the disease in the broader community.”

A look at the school’s COVID-19 dashboard shows a big jump in COVID-19 cases from Dec. 7, when 27 positive cases were reported, through Dec. 13, when 276 new positive cases were recorded.

The omicron variant was first found in the U.S. on Dec. 1 in California, and it has since been detected in more than 30 states, according to the CDC variant tracker.

“While there is no evidence of increased potential to cause severe disease, or death, increased infections in previously infected, or vaccinated individuals may be likely,” according to findings on the omicron variant from Oxford University in the U.K.

At Cornell, vaccination is required for students attending on-campus classes during the 2021-2022 school year unless they “received a religious or medical exemption.”

Cornell’s last day of classes were on Dec. 7, according to the school’s academic calendar, and finals began Dec. 11 and will last until Dec. 18.

“For the past 20 months, Cornell has developed and followed a science-based approach to COVID-19 decision-making – including ongoing modeling and surveillance testing – that has helped us to identify positive cases early and, in concert with local public health officials, minimize the spread of the virus among our campus and the greater Ithaca communities,” Malina said.

“This approach is what led us to the early detection this past weekend of Omicron variant cases at Cornell.”

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