Despite imposing nearly every restriction imaginable upon its students, Cornell University experienced a huge COVID-19 outbreak in the last week of its semester.
Before the school year began, Cornell mandated that everyone on campus—regardless of vaccination status—participate in surveillance testing and wear masks indoors. Unvaccinated Cornell students have also been required to maintain six-foot social distancing and mask while outside when distancing is not possible.
On April 2, the university additionally implemented a vaccine mandate for all students, faculty, and staff as a prerequisite for returning to campus. As a result of this policy, Cornell has achieved a 97% on-campus vaccination rate.
Despite these stringent COVID-19 protocols, Cornell experienced an explosion of cases just before its most recent finals week: between December 7 and 13, the university reported 903 COVID-19 cases among students, which were largely breakthrough cases of the Omicron variant. This prompted the university to move all finals online, cancel all university activities and athletic events, and close campus facilities, such as libraries, during finals week.
Though it went into lockdown in response to this outbreak, Cornell’s president, Malina Pollack, admitted that “we have not seen severe illness in any of our infected students.”
Omicron is already understood to be much less lethal than other strains of COVID-19. And according to the CDC, in the week ending November 20, exactly thirty Americans aged 18-24 died of COVID-19, an age cohort essentially all undergraduate students fall into. Note that many of these individuals likely had serious underlying conditions. For reference, there are over 30.6 million Americans between the ages of 18-24. This means that, at the moment, it is literally a one-in-a-million chance that you will die of COVID-19 in any particular week if you fall into this age cohort. It remains unclear whether Cornell and other schools will reevaluate their COVID-19 policies in light of this reality.
Smaller American universities’ general response to COVID-19 has been fairly standardized. The University of Chicago, for example, has implemented many of the same measures that Cornell took prior to its eruption of cases. Taking this into account, it is almost inevitable that UChicago will be vulnerable to a similar COVID-19 outbreak upon returning to campus. This likelihood may be exacerbated by our neighborhood’s relatively high population density: Hyde Park has 18,000 residents per square mile, whereas Ithaca only has about 6,000 per square mile in its densest areas.
Cornell’s immense restrictions on daily life proved ineffective at preventing a huge COVID-19 outbreak on its campus. From this point forward, essentially every human on planet Earth will contract COVID-19 at some point in their lives. More life-draining measures, overreaching restrictions, and totalitarian mandates will not stop that from happening. Accordingly, there is no epidemiological basis for continuing such draconian COVID-19 mitigation regimes—they are mere political theater with no limiting principle. Will UChicago “follow the science”? Or will the administration’s delusional obsession with attempting to ward off the inevitable condemn current and future community members to a never-ending string of suffocating restraints that prevent us from truly living our lives?
*The views expressed in this article solely represent the views of the author, not the views of the Chicago Thinker.