Health Advisory Regarding Community Transmission in NYC

Widespread community transmission of COVID-19 in New York City. Take crucial measures to keep the virus from spreading further.

March 18, 2020

Dear Fellow Members of the Columbia Community,

As COVID-19 continues to spread around the globe, we write to reiterate that there is now widespread community transmission of COVID-19 in New York City. This means that COVID-19 is actively circulating in the community. Thus, the New York City Department of Health is no longer conducting contact tracing, is limiting testing for more serious cases and those needing hospitalization, and is focused on efforts to reduce community transmission. We continue to see a small but growing number of cases of COVID-19 in our affiliates and expect these numbers to increase. 

As such, everyone must assume they have been exposed and act accordingly. Please take these crucial measures to keep the virus from spreading further: 

  • Stay home if you are sick. 
  • If you are not feeling sick, stay home as much as possible and practice social distancing. 
  • Practice essential prevention hygiene: frequent handwashing, coughing/sneezing into your elbow; sanitizing high-touch surfaces; avoiding touching your face with unwashed hands; waving/elbow bumping instead of shaking hands; do not share food or drink. 
  • Maintain at least 6 feet from others, when possible. 

Older adults or those who have other serious chronic health conditions, including chronic lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, cancer or a weakened immune system, are especially at risk for severe illness and must stay home as much as possible to avoid exposure. 

If you have symptoms (cough, fever, shortness of breath, sore throat), stay home. If your symptoms are mild, you do not need to seek medical care. If you are a member of a higher risk group or your symptoms are severe, such as difficulty breathing, contact your primary care provider (PCP) or go to the emergency room (many request that you call first).  Columbia students, please reach out to your campus medical service: Morningside (212-854-7426) or CUIMC (212-305-3400). Faculty and staff should reach out to your primary care provider.  If your symptoms do not go away after 3 or 4 days, contact your PCP. In about 80% of cases, symptoms resolve by themselves with supportive care (including rest, fluids, and taking fever reducing medications such as Tylenol). Stay at home for at least 7 days after your symptoms first start, and at least three days after you no longer have a fever (without the need to use fever-reducing medications).

If you were in contact with someone who is a confirmed case/is waiting for confirmation/recently traveled from a CDC Level 3 areaself-monitor for COVID-19-like illness (see symptoms above) for 14 days from the date of last contact with the ill person. If you are concerned, please call Columbia’s COVID-19 hotline at 212-854-9355 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm) or your primary care provider. Please use this guide to understand your level of exposure and the appropriate action.   

We understand that this new guidance will engender numerous questions and concerns. We ask you to visit the Preparedness FAQs which addresses a majority of concerns we have heard. If you have questions about your health, please call 212-854-9355. If you are a student and need support, please consider using our online coping tools and reaching out to your friends, family and student affairs staff in your school.  If you have an urgent concern about your well-being or the well-being of a friend, contact Counseling and Psychological Services at 212-854-2878 (Morningside) and Mental Health Services at 212-305-3400 (CUIMC).

In sum, the best way to take care of ourselves and our community is to stay home and practice social distancing. Stay up to date by visiting  

With care for our community, 

Melanie Bernitz, MD, MPH  
Associate Vice President and Medical Director, Columbia Health  
Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine (in the Center for Family and Community Medicine)