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Harvard Medical School Affiliates Hold COVID-19 Briefing on Reopening Strategies for Massachusetts and Harvard

Harvard medical and public health experts discussed current challenges in fighting COVID-19 Friday.
Harvard medical and public health experts discussed current challenges in fighting COVID-19 Friday. By Krystal K. Phu
By Kevin A. Simauchi, Crimson Staff Writer

Experts from Harvard Medical School and the School of Public Health discussed the state of the COVID-19 pandemic Friday, along with challenges associated with preventing new infections as lockdown restrictions ease.

The public briefing included eight panelists from the Harvard Medical School-led Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness.

During the briefing, participants praised Massachusetts’s response to the pandemic. Panelists like Medical School professor Joia Stapleton Mukherjee praised the state’s contact tracing efforts.

“Massachusetts is leading the way in contract tracing efforts, especially with marginalized communities,” Mukherjee said.

Black and brown residents of Massachusetts test positive for coronavirus at a rate three times that of white residents. In response to such data, the state’s Health Equity Advisory Group urged the state earlier this month to better track data on the virus's spread and improve housing for marginalized populations.

In her remarks, Mukherjee also added that Massachusetts’s contract tracing efforts aim to make sure that potential COVID-19 infected patients have the resources necessary to wait out the pandemic.

“Around 15 percent of Massachusetts residents who are cases or contacts need social support,” Mukherjee wrote in her presentation. “Poorest and marginalized lack agency without the material means to protect themselves.”

Assistant Medical School professor Howard M. Heller said he largely agreed with Mukherjee’s assessment.

“I think we are setting an example in a lot of areas in terms of mandating the masks and the recovery or the reopening combined with really the surveillance that if we are starting to see a bump it will be noticed before it gets out of hand,” Heller said.

Mukherjee said the best reopening practices are rooted in testing, tracing, and supported isolation.

The panel also touched on how the pandemic may affect the reopening of college campuses across the state. MassCPR, the working group that led Friday’s briefing, has been in close collaboration with University officials to create a reopening plan for the upcoming fall semester. Asked about communication between MassCPR and the University, Harvard Medical School Dean George Q. Daley wrote that contact with administrators was ongoing.

“The experts within MassCPR have extensive and frequent interactions with Harvard leadership to help inform reopening strategies,” Daley wrote.

Daley and other panelists did not respond to further questions regarding what reopening strategy MassCPR would recommend to Harvard officials in charge of fall planning.

Still, Heller stressed that any strategy the University employs should be flexible and reflect the locations from which students travel.

“What percentage of students coming back from campus are likely to be infected and the number at the end of August might be different than the number right now,” Heller said. “But you can start planning; if by mid-August we start seeing the rates of positive testing is 20% percent in some of the states where students are coming from the plan might be different than it is right now.”

“But you can model out, see where your students’ coming from and see what resources we have for testing and also what resources we have for taking care of sick students,” he added.

With Harvard’s peer institutions announcing their plans to reopen, Heller mentioned that existing guidelines fail to address how to proceed with taking care of students who might have already been infected with and recovered from COVID-19.

“It’s an excellent and it’s an interesting question that I have not seen addressed by any of the guidelines,” Heller said. “As far as we know people can become reinfected. We don’t know how common that is.”

—Staff writer Kevin A. Simauchi can be reached at kevin.simauchi@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter at @simauchi.

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