In Anticipation of Coronavirus Spread, University Takes Precautions and Plans to Respond

As public health officials warn of the likelihood of a widespread coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., Harvard administrators continue to detail contingency plans.
By Fiona K. Brennan

The University is closely monitoring the coronavirus situation.
The University is closely monitoring the coronavirus situation. By Sara Komatsu

As public health officials warn of the likelihood of a widespread coronavirus outbreak in the United States, Harvard administrators continue to detail contingency plans for its possible arrival on campus and consider a possible transition to online learning platforms.

Harvard University Health Services staff and top administrators from various offices across the school meet daily to stay up-to-date on the continually evolving situation. Through additional University-wide meetings and regular communication with other colleges and public health officials, experts share knowledge and coordinate responses.

University Health Services director Giang T. Nguyen said that HUHS attends calls with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and participates in webinars with the Centers for Disease Control, receiving updates from public health officials multiple times per day.

Harvard administrators have discouraged all non-essential travel and prohibited University-related travel to countries with a Level 3 Travel Warning from the CDC in response to the virus. The College created an Emergency Management task force that will send biweekly email updates to students as the outbreak evolves.

As of Thursday evening, over 98,300 cases of coronavirus and 3,377 reported deaths were confirmed. In the U.S., there are at least 215 recorded cases and 14 deaths.

In addition to three confirmed cases in Boston, Biogen — a biotechnology company based in Cambridge’s Kendall Square — said Thursday that three of its employees have tested positive for COVID-19. The affected employees recently attended a conference at a Boston hotel with 175 co-workers, several of whom have since reported flu-like symptoms.

Through communication efforts from the Boston Public Health Commission, various contacts throughout the city remain informed on new updates about the coronavirus outbreak.

“The Boston Public Health Commission continues to host information sessions and advise key partners across the City, including hospitals, health centers, schools and local universities & their health centers on best practices, preparedness efforts and protocols for COVID-19,” according to an email from BPHC spokesperson Caitlin McLaughlin.


On Tuesday, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the School of Public Health Caroline O. Buckee suggested that, due to insufficient access to testing, knowledge about the full extent to which coronavirus has already spread throughout the city may be incomplete.

“I think there is a significant chance that we already have community transmission of coronavirus in the Boston area,” she said. “This hasn't been confirmed yet, but we’ve only just received the test kits in order to do the surveillance.”

Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the School of Public Health Michael J. Mina shares Buckee’s concern about lack of access to coronavirus testing. Both highlighted that the city may be deficient in resources to test individuals who experience either no or limited symptoms of the virus, but who may still be spreading it.

“At the moment, the testing is very, very, very limited in Boston. That means that we’re pretty much exclusively testing patients who come in with illness or potentially very close contacts of [those] individuals,” Mina said. “So I would say at the moment, we have no program set up to screen individuals who are asymptomatic to see if they are carrying the virus.”

HUHS does not currently have on-site coronavirus testing capabilities but will send testing specimens first to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and then, if necessary, to the CDC, the location of centralized national testing, according to Nguyen.

“If and when we have a person who comes in with concern for coronavirus, we have protocols in place to follow and assess the potential risks that this person actually might have coronavirus,” Nguyen said.

While the situation is constantly changing, Nguyen said that, at the moment, if there was a potential case of coronavirus in a Harvard affiliate, that person would be immediately advised to self-isolate.

Maria Francesconi, senior director of nursing and health promotion at HUHS, said that anyone in isolation would remain in frequent contact with HUHS.

“They would get a phone call from us, sometimes twice, three times a day just to check in to see how they’re doing, what their temperature looks like, if symptoms are changing, and we would help to facilitate care if the person was continuing to feel worse,” Francesconi said.

Leonard J. Marcus, a lecturer on public health practice at the School of Public Health, said that in the event that a Harvard affiliate does contract coronavirus, epidemiologists would respond by mapping its potential spread.

“If we discover that there is a student who has come down with disease in one of the houses, what epidemiologists will do is called contact tracing — who are the people who have been close enough to that person that they could have contracted the disease?” Marcus said. “Those people who have been exposed then will be asked to quarantine for two weeks.”


In multiple University-wide emails, administrators have urged students to take precautions by maintaining personal hygiene.

Marcus also emphasized the importance of personal responsibility and individual preparation in containing the spread of coronavirus.

“Go through the ‘what if’ scenario, that I had to be quarantined. And if we all do that, the moment when we’re given that notice you’ve got to quarantine, we’ll be ready for it,” Marcus said. “That's an exercise we can all go through because personal responsibility is going to be critical.”

In addition to these personal measures, the University is exploring various institutional solutions aimed at limiting the impact of coronavirus.

In the past week, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay suggested that faculty begin familiarizing themselves with Zoom, a video communication platform, which has been proposed as a possible way to limit physical contact on campus.

Mina suggested making the switch to online learning soother rather than later.

“I think that it’s actually a good time to really strongly consider the option of moving these really large classes in particular to remote learning,” Mina said. “I think that those are measures that have very few consequences, and they are the types of measures that I think should be the first to really occur on a college campus.”

Nguyen said that while online teaching platforms are already used by some faculty members, the University has yet to make the transition mandatory. He said there is no “formal trigger” to determine if, or when, that change would be implemented.

“There are plenty of faculty who are already using electronic means to teach, and so there's nothing to say that a faculty member can’t decide to do that now just so that they are comfortable with the system,” Nguyen said. “But right now, we're not saying that everyone needs to do that.”

The switch to online learning, however, may present difficulties for project-based classes, such as Applied Physics 50B, taught by Professor Eric Mazur.

Mazur called the six group projects the class does during the semester are the “glue that holds the whole course together.”

According to Mazur, while he would be able to adapt his curriculum to a situation in which online learning was necessary, it could present complications and negatively affect students’ learning experiences.

“I don’t think it’s going to be completely the same thing as us working together also because the nature of the project will probably change a little bit, so I’m not 100 percent sure that we could deliver exactly the same in the effective teamwork,” Mazur said.

Other universities have already taken steps to limit the possible spread of the virus. On Wednesday, MIT announced that any in-person MIT events attended by over 150 people and taking place before May 15 will need to be canceled, postponed, or moved online.

Nguyen said that Harvard is certainly discussing the possibility of canceling future events, such as Yardfest, but does not want to make premature decisions.

“A month is far away, so we don’t really know what to expect for that," Nguyen said. "But we’re taking these decisions very seriously. And so we don’t want to do them without fully considering all of the implications."

—Staff writer Fiona K. Brennan can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @FionaBrennan23.

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