This message was sent to the Rockefeller community from the Office of the President on April 24, 2020 at 9:56 a.m.
Subject: COVID-19 Update from the President
Greetings! I’m writing to provide you an update on the university’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
First, I hope this message find you and your families safe and faring well. The impact on everyone has been substantial, and I know we are all yearning for a return to normalcy in both our professional and private lives.
In our region, there have been some encouraging indicators. New hospitalizations and daily deaths from COVID-19 in New York State have markedly declined in the last two weeks, providing strong evidence that social distancing and adherence to the governor’s stay at home policy is working. This is good news, and provides encouragement that we are on the right track. As you know, New York State continues on “Pause” through May 15. In accordance with the governor’s order, we anticipate that the current closure status of Rockefeller University will remain in effect at least through May 15.
Just yesterday, we gained new insight into the overall prevalence of infection in our state. We have believed for some time that the number of people diagnosed with active infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus by the RNA test has underestimated the true number of people who are infected. On Thursday we saw strong evidence that this is true. By testing 3,000 people across the state for antibodies that specifically recognize the SARS-CoV-2 virus (these antibodies indicate that people have previously been infected with the virus), the study found that 21% of people tested across NYC had antibodies to the virus, with slightly lower percentages on Long Island and in Westchester county. In contrast, only 3.9% had antibodies in the rest of the state. Altogether, the results suggest that about 13.9% of people in NY have previously been infected. This corresponds to ~2.8 million people, which is 10 times the number diagnosed by the RNA test.
I am pleased to report that there have been relatively few known or suspected cases within our community, and no signs that the infection has been spreading on campus or within our residential buildings. Since initiation, 168 people have been monitored by Occupational Health Services (OHS) because of symptoms suggestive of COVID-19, exposure to someone with symptoms, or recent return from an area with high infection rate. Five people have been diagnosed by RNA testing and about 20 more are suspected of having had COVID-19 but have not been tested. To date, there have been no hospitalizations or deaths due to COVID-19 among our immediate community. Nonetheless several people in our community have lost loved ones to COVID-19, and we extend our deep condolences to these colleagues. We now have a modest but growing capability to conduct our own testing for the virus, and have begun a pilot testing program designed to protect the health of the dedicated essential personnel who continue to report to work on campus to perform crucial functions. My continuing thanks to Tom Sakmar, Ashley Foo, and the rest of the OHS team for their tremendous efforts in this program.
At this time, scientific activity on campus continues to be limited to approved COVID-19 research projects in 20 labs, and the campus remains open only to essential and critical personnel and residents of GSR and Sophie Fricke. We expect everyone to continue to practice social distancing and, per the governor’s order, to wear face coverings whenever in public or when a six-foot distance from others cannot be maintained. You should only come to campus for essential laboratory activities. Anyone who feels ill should stay home and call OHS for advice.
Although it’s too early to speculate when we might start to expand laboratory research on campus, it is appropriate to begin planning how we will do so. Reopening of laboratories must be done in a way that continues to minimize the possibility for the virus to spread. One can anticipate that this will continue to include working from home when possible to enhance social distancing among those who must be on campus. I have convened a committee comprising faculty and staff that will work to devise a detailed plan over the coming weeks.
Since my last email, COVID-19 research has been barreling along on campus. For example, Paul Bieniasz and Theodora Hatziioannou have developed a very useful assay for identifying how well particular antibodies or plasma samples from patients who have recovered from SARS-CoV-2 infection prevent the virus from infecting human cells. This assay has been shared with many labs in NYC and beyond. In this same vein, Michel Nussenzweig’s work has identified a number of antibodies made by recovered patients that prevent the virus from infecting cells. And Jeff Ravetch has devised a way to direct specific antibodies to dendritic cells, and has shown that this can be of benefit in the treatment of serious viral respiratory diseases. It has been extremely gratifying to watch the progress made by the many labs that have started up COVID-19-related projects in the last month.
In other news, with Luciano Marraffini leading the way, we are working to secure a lineup of speakers for our Friday seminar series. For now, these will be online talks, but last Friday’s talk by coronavirus expert Ralph Baric showed that these can be very successful. Also it will come as no surprise that this year’s convocation will be conducted virtually, and I look forward to celebrating the achievements of our stellar students and honorees with their families and friends.
I want to take a moment to offer our deep gratitude to all the health care providers and first responders whose courage and skill in this extraordinarily difficult time is saving lives. I also want to remember all of the workers on campus and everywhere else who are making sure essential services are maintained for all of us, delivering food, dispensing prescriptions, maintaining our homes and workplaces, ensuring our security, and so much more. Below please see a photo of a sign that was recently installed on the fence on 68th Street directly facing the entrance to NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
Front line health care workers are counting on us to come up with tomorrow’s treatments and preventions for this disease and others. But today, we are counting on them. Please join me in thanking them for everything they are doing for us all.
In closing, I want to emphasize the importance of maintaining our connections and friendships in our community while we are physically separated. I encourage everyone to reach out today to someone you’ve been missing the last month just to say hello and keep in touch. I know your efforts will be very much appreciated!
With all best wishes,