With the campus back in full swing, public health experts have said Harvard’s Covid-19 policies are reasonable for now, but have called on University officials to stay prepared for the possibility of another wave.
Starting last semester, Harvard has been loosening its masking and testing protocols. Masks are encouraged but optional in most indoor settings, and while students were required to take an antigen test upon return to campus, the University will stop sponsoring optional PCR tests later this month.
Harvard University Health Services encouraged affiliates to take advantage of the eight free antigen tests available to them through their private insurance.
“Going to school, you find yourself in a situation where things are generally fine,” said John S. Brownstein, a professor at Harvard Medical School who serves as the head of innovation at Boston Children’s Hospital. “But we have to anticipate the fact that it is possible that the school will have to change to report the tests, restore the masking, depending on what the surveillance data says.”
Thomas N. Denny, chief operating officer of Duke University’s Human Vaccine Institute, said an increase in positivity rates is likely as crowds gather more indoors when the weather cools.
“The virus will decide when we’re done with us, not when we’re done,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw some numbers increase during the fall and winter months – it’s just hard to know yet.”
Enrolled students must be up-to-date on their Covid-19 vaccinations, which means they must have received all doses in their primary and subsequent booster series for which they were eligible since the beginning of the calendar year.
As of August 31, 74% of all Cambridge residents were fully vaccinated.
On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention authorized new Covid-19 boosters targeting more transmissible variants. Some experts have said more data is needed to understand how to get the vaccine out to the public.
“We really don’t know enough about that recall to know what kind of recommendations should be made and how strongly they should be made,” said Harvard School of Public Health Professor Eric J. Rubin ’80, who added that it’s “very likely. “That the booster is safe.” Until we know, I think it is really difficult to establish policies. “
When Harvard withdrew its cloaking mandate in March, campus disability justice advocates expressed their concerns about the danger an optional masking policy would pose to immunocompromised affiliates. While some health experts have said that those on campus need to be aware of others’ risk levels, they added that most of the protections will have to come from the practices of those at risk.
“While we have to be respectful, there are also practical limits to what can be done,” said Daniel R. Kuritzkes, head of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “You cannot request that an entire population be masked because a small part of that population is potentially vulnerable.”
Michael T. Osterholm, who served on President Joe Biden’s Covid-19 transition advisory board, said the United States has passed stringent public health restrictions, making it difficult to re-implement without a serious pretext.
“What’s happening is we’re seeing that the company has decided, ‘We’re done with these [masks]'”, said Olsterhom, who added that Covid-19 transmission remains” a real risk “for much of the American public.
Although he acknowledged that policy-making around the pandemic is difficult, Massachusetts General Hospital infectious disease specialist Amir M. Mohareb said he would appreciate more transparency on the “ramps” that could trigger the return of Covid-19 restrictions.
“What I would like to see from the authorities who have put this guide together is what are the benchmarks by which more rigorous testing and contact tracing will be restored, what had been done previously,” Mohareb said.
Should new variants of Covid-19 emerge, sound policy early in the semester may not be feasible in two months, Brownstein said.
“The pandemic has taught us that things can change very quickly,” he said. “People have to be flexible”.