Harvard Provost Garber Reflects on Rising Campus COVID-19 Cases, Spring Planning


Ahead of a decision about how Harvard College will operate this spring, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 reflected on the University’s successes in containing COVID-19 this fall in a Monday interview.

Prior to the fall semester, “a lot of the planning had to do with assessing the housing stock that we had available for students to live in, quarantine facilities,” Garber said.

Though the University is considering similar criteria for the spring semester, Garber said the experience of the fall semester provided administrators with more information, like “knowing how well our testing and contact tracing works.”

Harvard has seen a relatively low number of positive coronavirus cases throughout the year. Recently, however, the number of positive cases among University affiliates has been increasing in tandem with rising case counts nationwide.


The past week alone has seen a total of 72 new positive cases among Harvard affiliates — 34 faculty and staff, 27 graduate students, and 11 undergraduates. The overall positivity rate is also up to 0.43 percent.

“We need to be vigilant on campus because if our measures do not work with the rising prevalence off campus, we could eventually have a large number of cases transmitted on campus,” he said.

“Unfortunately, we've seen new evidence that that is about to occur,” he added.

Luckily, he said, the majority of undergraduate students currently on campus will leave in less than a week.

“We're mainly trying to ensure that we continue to have a safe on campus experience for them,” he said. “We will push hard for ongoing adherence to our testing protocols, to distancing, to mask wearing, good hand washing, and the usual public health measures that we have been promoting and that our community has been very good about adopting.”

Garber, Executive Vice President Katherine N. Lapp, and Harvard University Health Services Director Giang T. Nguyen reminded Harvard affiliates of these protocols in an email Tuesday.

They urged affiliates to wear face coverings “correctly” over the nose and mouth, practice social distancing, wash hands frequently, limit gatherings, participate in viral testing as applicable, and minimize travel.

“Our ability to resume some semblance of normal activity depends on our continued commitment to the actions we take to protect ourselves and our communities,” they wrote.

They also updated the University’s pandemic-related travel guidance, extending the prohibition of international and domestic University-related travel until further notice and discouraging all personal travel.

“Travel can significantly increase the likelihood of contracting and spreading the COVID-19 virus,” they wrote. “As much as we all want to celebrate in the presence of friends and family during the upcoming holiday season, we ask that you seriously consider whether travel is truly necessary.”

In the Monday interview, Garber also said he has also relied on meetings with other provosts across the nation during the pandemic.

A member of the “Ivy Plus” provost group, Garber said he meets regularly with provosts, data analysts, epidemiologists, and economists from the other seven universities in the Ivy League, as well as officials from Johns Hopkins University, the University of Chicago, Stanford University, and others.

Before the pandemic began, they met semesterly, Garber said. Now, the consortium meets weekly to exchange ideas.

“There are people from a variety of disciplines, but it's a very impressive, sophisticated group,” he said.

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.