‘Overall in a good place’: Health experts weigh in on Harvard’s relaxed Covid-19 policies | News

With the campus once again in full swing, public health experts said Harvard’s Covid-19 policies are reasonable for now, but urged university officials to remain prepared for the possibility of another surge.

At the start of last semester, Harvard relaxed its masking and testing protocols. Masks are encouraged but optional in most indoor facilities, 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.

“Going into school, you’re in a situation where things are generally in a good place,” said John S. Brownstein, a professor at Harvard Medical School who serves as chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital. “But we have to anticipate the fact that the school may have to turn around to bring back testing, bring back 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 as the weather cools.

“The virus will decide when it’s done with us, not when we’re done with it,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some numbers go up in the fall and winter months — it’s just hard to know yet.”

Enrolled students are required to be up-to-date with their Covid-19 vaccinations, meaning they must have received all doses in their initial series and subsequent boosters for which they are eligible by 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 aimed at more portable variants. Some experts said more data is needed to understand how to roll out the vaccine to the public.

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

When Harvard dropped its mask mandate in March, disability justice advocates on campus raised concerns about the danger the mask policy could pose to immunocompromised affiliates. Although some health experts said that people on campus should be mindful of the risk levels of others, they added that most 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, chief of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “You can’t require the entire population to be masked because a small portion of that population is potentially vulnerable.”

Michael T. Osterholm, who served on President Joe Biden’s transition advisory council on Covid-19, said the United States had gone through strict public health restrictions, making it difficult to reimpose them without a serious pretext.

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

While he acknowledged that policymaking around the pandemic is difficult, Massachusetts General Hospital infectious disease specialist Amir M. Mohareb said he would appreciate more transparency about the “tilts” that could prompt the return of Covid-19 restrictions.

“What I would like to see from the authorities that draw up these guidelines is what are the indicators at which more rigorous testing and contact tracing – what was done before – will be reinstated,” Mohareb said.

If new variants of Covid-19 emerge, a sensible policy at the beginning of the semester may not be feasible two months from now, Brownstein said.

“The pandemic has taught us that things can change very quickly,” he said. “People have to be flexible.”

—Team List Kara J. Chang can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @CaraChang20.

—Staff List Isabella B. Cho can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.

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