Harvard students who test positive for Covid-19 during the spring semester will be required to self-isolate — not move into University-provided isolation housing — and conduct contact tracing themselves, a stark departure from the school’s previous public health policies.
Harvard announced an array of changes to its public health protocols this week as it prepares to welcome students back to campus despite soaring Covid-19 case rates among school affiliates and residents in the greater Boston area.
Harvard University Health Services Director Giang T. Nguyen wrote in an email Thursday that the school changed its Covid protocols in accordance with recommendations from public health experts and guidance from state and federal public health agencies.
“With our Harvard community’s near universal vaccination, the majority of infected individuals in our community are having no symptoms or mild symptoms that resolve quickly,” Nguyen wrote.
HUHS will no longer call students who test positive or reach out to their close contacts, Nguyen wrote. Affiliates who test positive will be responsible for notifying their close contacts.
“With cases at a rate of nearly 20-times what we averaged in the fall semester, the contact tracing team will be communicating exclusively via email at this time,” Nguyen wrote.
As of Thursday evening, Harvard reported 603 positive cases and a positivity rate of 3.36 percent in the last seven days, per the University Covid-19 dashboard. Nguyen attributed the surge in cases to the Omicron variant.
“The highly transmissible Omicron variant is driving the majority of the cases we are seeing at Harvard, as is the case nationally,” he wrote. “Last week we reported 970 new infections at a time when campus density is relatively low. For comparison, our case count was 140 during the first week after the Thanksgiving break.”
Fully vaccinated individuals who come into contact with a person who tests positive will not be required to quarantine if they are asymptomatic, the HUHS email said. Individuals who are unvaccinated or have not received their booster shot will be required to quarantine for five days following exposure, in accordance with CDC guidelines.
Harvard announced in December that it would require all affiliates to receive Covid-19 booster shots. Affiliates must receive the booster by Jan. 31 or within 30 days of becoming eligible.
In a major shift from its previous guidance, Harvard will no longer require students who test positive move into isolation housing for 10 days. Instead, Covid-positive students will be required to isolate in their dorms for five days, in line with current CDC guidelines, followed by five days of strict mask-wearing if they have no symptoms or symptoms that are resolving.
Students also have the options of isolating locally or moving to a different location if HUHS deems it necessary, according to a Thursday email from the Dean of Students Office.
“The updates to guidance and protocols we have made recognize the unprecedented number of cases within our community that we must support, while also continuing to take steps to reduce risk of transmission,” Nguyen wrote.
Students whose direct roommate tests positive may apply for alternative housing if they are asymptomatic and have tested negative, with priority given to those at increased risk for COVID-19 complications and those in a suite where all other students have tested positive, per the DSO email.
“Alternative housing is limited and is not guaranteed,” the DSO email reads. “Decisions for alternative housing will be made once a day, and students must move within the allotted timeframe.”
Harvard will provide rapid antigen tests in dorms for students to take upon arrival to campus and HEPA filters in each bedroom and bathroom. The DSO email also announced that the University is working to acquire KN95 masks which will be available to students upon request.
Harvard University Dining Services will serve grab-and-go meals in campus dining halls for the first two weeks of the semester, per the DSO email. Students who test positive will retrieve hot meals from a separate location.
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