• Faculty and staff cases are low but there is "rapid spread" among students
  • The university's laboratory has found evidence of the Omicron variant
  • Exams have moved online, while a recognition ceremony has been canceled

Cornell University has shut down its Ithaca campus due to the high number of COVID-19 cases. It is now under "Alert Level Red."

Many students have tested positive for COVID-19, Cornell University President Martha Pollack said in a letter to the campus community Tuesday. Based on its updated COVID-19 tracking dashboard, the positivity rate from Dec. 7 to 13 was at 4.18%, with 903 student cases being reported.

Data shows that a vast majority of the confirmed positives in Ithaca were among the students. Calling it a "'rapid spread" COVID-19 among the student body, Pollack noted cases among the faculty and staff were low and that its COVID-19 testing laboratory had found evidence of the Omicron variant in a "significant number of Monday's positive student samples."

Although the evidence for Omicron is still "preliminary" and the university is waiting for confirmation, it is still already treating them as confirmed cases. Despite early evidence suggesting the Omicron variant may be causing milder cases, Pollack cautioned that it is "far from certain."

"(H)igher transmissibility leads to exponential growth, which outweighs the linear decrease in percent of severe cases," Pollack noted.

"Out of an abundance of caution," the campus is moving to "alert level red," which refers to a "high risk" situation wherein there is "significant increase in incidence with limited quarantine, isolation and/or local hospital capacity."

Under this category, all the students, staff and visitors are required to wear masks indoors. They should also wear masks outdoors if physical distancing is not possible. Classroom capacities will also be reduced while some classes will be moved online.

Cornell's last day of classes was on Dec. 7 but the final examinations were scheduled for Dec. 11 to 18. The exams have now been moved to an online format or rescheduled, while "all university activities," as well as the recognition ceremony for the December graduates have been canceled. Libraries are also closed to students, and so are fitness centers and gyms, CNN reported.

Joel Malina, vice president for university relations, told NPR in a statement that the university has been following a "science-based approach" to its COVID-19 decision-making.

"It is obviously extremely dispiriting to have to take these steps. However, since the start of the pandemic, our commitment has been to follow the science and do all we can to protect the health of our faculty, staff, and students," Pollack said. "We have faced many challenges together over the last many months. I am confident that we can once again rise to meet this current challenge so we can all take a well-deserved break."