Modeling for COVID-19 College Reopening Decisions: Cornell, A Case Study


We consider epidemiological modeling for the design of COVID-19 interventions in university populations, which have seen significant outbreaks during the pandemic. A central challenge is sensitivity of predictions to input parameters coupled with uncertainty about these parameters. Nearly two years into the pandemic, parameter uncertainty remains because of changes in vaccination efficacy, viral variants and mask mandates, and because universities' unique characteristics hinder translation from the general population: a high fraction of young people, who have higher rates of asymptomatic infection and social contact, as well as an enhanced ability to implement behavioral and testing interventions. We describe an epidemiological model that formed the basis for Cornell University’s decision to reopen for in-person instruction in fall 2020 and supported the design of an asymptomatic screening program instituted concurrently to prevent viral spread. We demonstrate how the structure of these decisions allowed risk to be minimized despite parameter uncertainty leading to an inability to make accurate point estimates and how this generalizes to other university settings. Looking forward, we find that once-per-week asymptomatic screening of vaccinated undergraduate students provides substantial value, even if all students are vaccinated, and that more targeted testing of the most social vaccinated students provides further value.

In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 119(2)
Jiayue Wan
Jiayue Wan
PhD candidate in Operations Research