University COVID Update

November 25, 2020

Dear fellow members of the Columbia community,

Not even two weeks have passed since our last communication that asked each of us to redouble our community’s efforts to keep the campus safe. That message was motivated by disconcerting national trends, even as it took note of New York’s, and Columbia’s, comparative successes. Troubling changes since, including some close to home, beg for further vigilance.

The SARS-CoV-2 positivity rate hit 3% in New York City last week, which triggered the move to make the public school system virtual this past Thursday. Four days later, on November 23, our Washington Heights and West Harlem zip codes shifted from “green” to “yellow,” as determined by New York State criteria, prompting a heightened level of precautionary measures. Though this change does not demand any immediate action by Columbia, it signifies a rise in COVID-19 cases in our surrounding communities, as well as growing pressures on our health care workers and institutions.

As a cautionary step, the University has reduced the size of all non-academic gatherings to 10 or fewer; the prior limit had been 50. As local and distant Thanksgiving gatherings with family and friends beckon, we also have initiated “departure” SARS-CoV-2 testing on a grand scale. Last week alone, close to 7,000 affiliates were tested and the Columbia positivity rate fell below 0.5%. Return to campus testing will begin on November 30, and the significantly expanded testing program will continue through December.

The past two weeks have witnessed the heartening news that three pharmaceutical companies have made significant progress towards approved COVID-19 vaccines. One or more might be available for first delivery as early as next month. Distribution, however, will be complicated and challenging, influenced by federal, state, and even local government agencies and decisions. To be prepared, we have appointed a vaccine task force, charged to identify the range of relevant issues and their implications for Columbia students, staff, and faculty.

Inevitably, first supplies will be short of the demand, and will be targeted to health care workers. As further developments unfold, we pledge to keep you regularly informed about vaccination policies and the wider range of pandemic issues. Just last week, more than 2,000 faculty and staff, posing more than 300 questions, participated in two town halls about COVID and Columbia. Early December will be a time for announcements that concern undergraduate housing as well as modes of instruction for the full constellation of courses across the University’s 16 schools.

We are grateful for all you have done at a most trying time, and send warm wishes for a safe and happy Thanksgiving.

With appreciation,

Ira Katznelson
Interim Provost
Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History

Donna Lynne
Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer
Columbia University Irving Medical Center
Chief Executive Officer, ColumbiaDoctors
University COVID Director