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Is Cornell University’s testing strategy applicable to businesses?

Updated: Aug 11, 2021

Cornell University is bringing back students to Ithaca, NY for in-person classes during the upcoming fall semester. This decision is not without controversy as multiple other universities of similar size and student body have decided for online semesters. The logistics of monitoring, tracing, isolating, and testing 35,000 individuals in the campus community appears daunting to anyone examining the potential risk.

Impressively, President Martha Pollack and her team have a carefully conceived and well-crafted plan. They found from internal research that many students were coming back to Ithaca in the fall anyway. They analyzed the issues carefully and determined that their students were better off in the low prevalence town of Ithaca with an aggressive surveillance plan than with online classes. They argued that with in-person classes, they could control the testing requirements more carefully and fully oversee the whole process. Additionally, they could implement cleaning and quarantine protocols that would have ensured compliance.

The crux of their strategy is their strong testing program. They will be performing PCR swab testing for each student at the beginning of the semester and then periodic “pooled testing” weekly. In pooled testing, ten samples from a cheek or nasal swab are batched together and then run together in the lab. If the sample is positive, then all 10 individuals get retested or quarantined. This methodology also reduces the cost of the testing by a factor of almost 10 after the initial testing after considering the retesting needs.

Can businesses use this strategy and perform surveillance testing as part of their return-to-work program?

Definitely yes. In fact, sports leagues have already adopted this practice.

Will businesses need this aggressive protocol for frequent testing?

Potentially, yes. Naturally, each situation depends on the ongoing risk to all the employees and peripherally exposed personnel. In sports, close contact is expected and necessary for competition. In some businesses such as health care where transmission risk is high or close proximity between personnel is unavoidable or likely, this strategy is also valuable. Other use cases include manufacturing and loading areas where cleaning protocols are difficult to implement consistently. Other potential examples include those situations where vulnerable individuals are in the workplace and cannot afford any Covid-19 exposure such as nursing homes or health care venues.

Clearly, Cornell plans on undertaking an ambitious strategy but to the institution’s credit, their leaders have constructed a defensible, thorough plan they that felt was best for their particular situation. They have also given important thought to the consequences or not having in-person classes in their calculus. This last step is extremely important for businesses and institutions to understand as they create a potential testing strategy as each entity has to formulate a plan that is right for them.

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