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Harvard University Health Services Director Giang T. Nguyen said in a Friday interview that school officials are discussing newly-relaxed state mask guidelines, but did not specify when — or if — the University will roll back its on-campus public health regulations.
An advisory released by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health last week no longer recommends indoor masking in most locations for healthy, fully-vaccinated residents. Masks are still required in certain settings, including transportation and health care facilities.
Cambridge and Harvard still require masks to be worn indoors.
“We have been discussing this and will continue to very seriously consider the trajectory for the mask guidelines on campus,” Nguyen said of the new state recommendations.
Nguyen’s comments come as Covid-19 cases in the greater Boston area continue to decline rapidly.
There were 151 positive cases on Harvard’s campus in the last seven days, amounting to a positivity rate of 0.48 percent, according to the University’s Covid-19 dashboard. In early January, the University recorded 976 positive cases during the peak of the Omicron variant on campus.
“The Omicron surge has receded tremendously over the last several weeks,” Nguyen said Friday. “We really hit the peak at the beginning of January and subsequently we’ve been dropping down pretty steeply, which has been great to see.”
Nguyen said it will take time for the surge to drop “all the way” due to the high number of cases recorded across the country in January.
“I don’t know exactly where we’ll land in terms of a steady state,” he said. “It may not be where we were as a steady state back in early fall of last year.”
HUHS will continue to adapt its policies as the science changes, Nguyen said.
“We have to keep in mind that the campus setting does bring more risk because of the concentration of people within classrooms, within residential housing, and so on,” he said.
Harvard has already rolled back some on-campus regulations, including a ban on in-person dining that took effect at the start of the semester. The College reopened its residential dining halls on Feb. 5.
“It’s really important to remember that well-being is so much more than the absence of COVID,” Nguyen said. “Some of the greatest risks for younger adults are the impact of social isolation, and those mental health consequences are real.”
He said the move to return to in-person dining was also driven by the high vaccination rate at Harvard, where 98 percent of students are vaccinated.
“When we made these decisions, we knew that these are decisions that affect a highly-vaccinated community of younger people who at baseline are not going to be at risk at the same degree as someone who is elderly and who has multiple chronic medical conditions,” Nguyen said.
“We were not seeing tremendously ill people, by and large,” he added.
Asked about the risks of the school’s return to in-person dining, Nguyen said unvaccinated individuals and people who have underlying medical conditions could sit farther apart from others.
“We’re really getting to a point within this pandemic experience where we have a lot more agency at the individual level,” he said. “And that's really where I think most of society is heading.”
—Staff writer Lucas J. Walsh can be reached at email@example.com.
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