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‘Generally in a Good Spot’: Health Experts Weigh In on Relaxed Harvard Covid-19 Policies

Guidelines for masking and antigen testing are posted on a bulletin board in Currier House.
Guidelines for masking and antigen testing are posted on a bulletin board in Currier House. By Pei Chao Zhuo
By Cara J. Chang and Isabella B. Cho, Crimson Staff Writers

With campus back in full swing, public health experts said Harvard’s Covid-19 policies are reasonable for the moment, but called on University officials to remain prepared for the possibility of another surge.

Beginning last semester, Harvard relaxed 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 returning 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.

“Heading to school, you’re in a situation where things are generally in a good spot,” said John S. Brownstein, a professor at Harvard Medical School who serves as the chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital. “But we have to anticipate the fact that it is possible that the school may have to pivot to bring back testing, bring back masking, depending on what the surveillance data is saying.”

Thomas N. Denny, Chief Operating Officer of Duke University’s Human Vaccine Institute, said that an uptick in positivity rates is likely as crowds convene more indoors as the weather cools.

“The virus will decide when it’s done with us, not when we’re done with it,” he said. “I would not be surprised if we saw some numbers increase over the fall and winter months — it’s just hard to know yet.”

Enrolled students are required to be up to date on their Covid-19 vaccinations, meaning that they must have received all doses in their primary series and subsequent boosters for which they were eligible as of the start of the calendar year.

As of August 31, 74 percent 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 said that more data is necessary to understand how to disseminate the vaccine to the public.

“We really don’t know enough about that booster to know what kind of recommendations should be made and how strongly those should be made,” said Harvard School of Public Health Adjunct Professor Eric J. Rubin ’80, who added that it is “very likely” that the booster is safe. “Until we know that, I think it’s really hard to set policies.”

When Harvard dropped its mask mandate in March, campus disability justice advocates voiced their concerns over the danger a mask-optional policy would pose to immunocompromised affiliates. While some health experts said those on campus must be mindful of the risk levels of others, they added that most protections will have to come from the practices of the individuals at risk.

“While we need to be respectful, there are also practical limits to what can be done,” Daniel R. Kuritzkes, the chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said. “You can’t require that an entire population be masked because a small fraction of that population is potentially vulnerable.”

Michael T. Osterholm, who served on President Joe Biden’s Transition Covid-19 Advisory Board, said that the United States has moved past stringent public health restrictions, making it difficult to reimplement them without serious pretext.

“What’s happening is that we’re seeing society’s decided, ‘We’re done with these [masks],’” said Olsterhom, who added that Covid-19 transmission remains “a real risk” to much of the American public.

Though he acknowledged policymaking around the pandemic is difficult, Massachusetts General Hospital infectious disease specialist Amir M. Mohareb said he’d appreciate more transparency about the “on ramps” that could trigger the return of Covid-19 restrictions.

“What I would like to see from the authorities who put this guidance together is what are the benchmarks at which more stringent testing and contact tracing — that which was previously done — is going to be reinstituted,” Mohareb said.

Should new Covid-19 variants arise, sound policy at the beginning of 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 need to be flexible.”

—Staff writer Cara J. Chang can be reached at cara.chang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @CaraChang20.

—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho can be reached at isabella.cho@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.

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