Harvard Yard with chairs.

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Campus & Community

What the easing of Mass. COVID restrictions means for the University

long read

Health and safety chiefs outline guidelines for students, professors, and staff

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced last week that he would lift most of the state’s remaining COVID-19 restrictions on May 29, while ending the commonwealth’s state of emergency on June 15. The decision reflects the improving public health situation in the region.

The decision will also have direct implications on Harvard’s ability to resume more robust on-campus activities in support of its ongoing dedication to teaching and learning, and to research. The Gazette spoke with Giang Nguyen, Harvard University Health Services (HUHS) executive director, and Bill VanSchalkwyk, the University’s managing director of Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) to learn more about what Baker’s announcement means for the Harvard community in terms of protocols around health and safety; why it’s so important for community members to get vaccinated; how they can do so if they haven’t already; and how they can ready themselves for their own returns to campus.


Giang Nguyen and Bill VanSchalkwyk

GAZETTE: Remind of us of what was included in Gov. Baker’s May 17 announcement.

NGUYEN: In short, Gov. Baker said last Monday that the state would remove most remaining industry restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic on May 29. This refers to the fact that capacity limits in businesses and public places will no longer be in place, and pandemic control plans for institutions of higher education will also be lifted.

Gov. Baker also said that the state will be adopting the latest guidance on mask-wearing from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). This new policy says that masks are no longer required outside when physical distancing is able to be observed, and that those who are vaccinated will no longer be required to wear masks inside, either. (Unvaccinated individuals will need to continue to wear masks when inside, though.) There are certain places where everyone will need to continue to wear masks, such as schools and child-care programs, nursing homes, health care facilities, and on public transportation.

Broadly, these announcements are good news, and they show that the public health situation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic is improving. Now, it is up to individual businesses and universities across the state to decide what safety measures are right for them. Like Harvard, they may decide to continue requiring face coverings on a more widespread basis, for the time being, in addition to other COVID-19 controls.

GAZETTE: Massachusetts has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. Talk about how widespread vaccination has led to the easing of these restrictions, and why it’s so important for community members to get vaccinated, if they haven’t already.

NGUYEN: Every day, we are seeing more and more scientific evidence about the value of vaccine against COVID-19 and how it is helping society to re-emerge from the pandemic. Hundreds of millions of people globally have now been vaccinated safely, and the guidelines from the CDC are grounded in very strong science based on the large number of vaccinations that have already been administered. And these data support the reality that those who are fully vaccinated are safely able to do a lot more things now that they were not able to do before.

Anyone in the Harvard community who has not yet completed their COVID-19 vaccination should make every effort to do so as soon as possible. The sooner each of us gets vaccinated, the sooner we will be able to comfortably do more of the activities that we have not been able to do. For this reason (and this guidance is new as of today’s communication from President [Larry] Bacow, [Executive Vice President Katie] Lapp, Provost [Alan] Garber, and myself), all community members — staff, students, faculty, and researchers alike — will be required to be vaccinated before they return to campus for the new academic year, unless they have a religious or medical reason that prevents them from doing so.

“All students, faculty, staff, and researchers, as soon as they are vaccinated, should submit copies of their vaccine card to HUHS. It’s tremendously important that folks do this — further easing of COVID-19 restrictions can only happen when we know that a greater percentage of our community members has been vaccinated,” says Giang Nguyen, executive director of Harvard University Health Services.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard file photo

Giang Nguyen.

GAZETTE: Can Harvard community members get the vaccine here on campus?

NGUYEN: HUHS is doing what it can to minimize the challenges that people might have in getting vaccinated. We are offering weekly vaccination clinics all summer — anyone who is affiliated with the University can log in and make an appointment on our website, using their HarvardKey. Appointments for June and July are already posted; we will soon be adding appointments for August as well. We are also encouraging those who can more conveniently get vaccinated through local pharmacies and through state facilities and other health care providers to do so, as well.

International community members who may not have access to a vaccine can certainly sign up for an appointment at an HUHS clinic this summer once they know when they are coming to campus. If international community members only have access to a vaccine that is not yet authorized by the Food and Drug Administration or the World Health Organization but is authorized by the country where they reside, we still advise them to seek whatever vaccine they can, so that they can have some level of protection; we expect more vaccine brands to receive authorization by the time most students arrive on campus. Another point for our global community members arriving here in Cambridge or Boston this summer and fall: We are starting to see evidence that people who have received one COVID-19 vaccine can safely receive a different vaccine later. In fact, doing so may promote an even stronger immune response than simply taking two doses of the same vaccine.

GAZETTE: How do Harvard community members prove they’ve had the vaccination?

NGUYEN: All students, faculty, staff, and researchers, as soon as they are vaccinated, should submit copies of their vaccine card to HUHS. Vaccination cards can be sent via email to mrecords@huhs.harvard.edu or use one of the encrypted options described on the University’s Verify Your Vaccine webpage. Persons who have been vaccinated by HUHS do not need to submit any information. And rest assured, all personal information is kept strictly confidential, no matter which process you decide to use.

It’s tremendously important that folks do this — further easing of COVID-19 restrictions can only happen when we know that a greater percentage of our community members has been vaccinated.

GAZETTE: Let’s turn to the University’s health and safety guidelines, and how they are changing as the state begins to reopen. Bill, what can you tell us about the process of making updates, to start?

VANSCHALKWYK: I’d like to begin by thanking all of my colleagues, who, over the past 15 months, have worked tirelessly to keep our campus safe and to adapt to the ongoing changes to our environment brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, many of which were largely unprecedented. 

I think it’s helpful to remind people what the decision-making process itself looks like, since our campus policies are based largely in guidance from organizations at the national, state, and local level. Changes in guidelines with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic begin with the experts at the CDC, then move to the state level. And then we have to wait for Cambridge and Boston officials to weigh in before Harvard considers what approach makes the most sense for our campus community. So, each time we’ve announced new protocols over the past 15 months, a lot of input has gone into these changes.

GAZETTE: Today’s message from University leadership referenced the safety protocols and guidelines that will remain in place at Harvard. Could you remind us of what those are?

VANSCHALKWYK: Here are the basics: With limited exceptions, Harvard will continue to require masks indoors, regardless of an individual’s vaccination status. This requirement will remain in place as we continue to get a better understanding of the level of vaccination across our community. This could change as we learn more. Masks are no longer required outdoors at Harvard for vaccinated individuals and can be removed by unvaccinated individuals as long as they can maintain physical distancing. We are still recommending that community members wear a mask outdoors in tight crowds or events, and we suggest that community members always carry a mask with them.

We are also working on updated guidance for on-campus gatherings, and there are special considerations that are specific to labs and health care facilities. Likewise, we are revising guidance for Harvard’s public-facing operations like museums and performing arts venues. The University leadership will communicate those updates as they are finalized.

Beginning May 29, anyone residing in undergraduate on-campus housing will see a reduction in the frequency of required COVID-19 tests from three times a week to twice per week. All others who are authorized to come to campus for work or academic activities will be required to submit a test once per week.

And we will no longer require daily Crimson Clear attestation for anyone coming to campus. However, anyone coming to campus for work or academic activities who has symptoms or a recent COVID-19 exposure or positive test should still complete Crimson Clear, so that HUHS can provide the proper guidance and support.

I would add, to this end, while we absolutely want folks who are experiencing symptoms and have been to campus to complete their Crimson Clear attestation, we do want to emphasize that one of the things we’ve learned from this pandemic is that folks should stay home from work if they are feeling ill. This is something that we should continue to encourage, even beyond COVID. We have seen very low rates of influenza over the past year and a half, largely because people have stayed put when they have respiratory symptoms.

Staying home when sick is a way to be a part of an inclusive community. It says that you are being thoughtful of colleagues whose immune systems may be compromised, and who are already feeling anxiety about coming back to campus.

NGUYEN: This is a really important point. And I would add that, while those folks who do have underlying health conditions will invariably feel more nervous about re-emerging after the pandemic, and rightly so, they can also be reassured by the fact that the clinical trials of the COVID vaccines included people who are in these very-high-risk categories. These trials indicated that the vaccines are incredibly effective in preventing severe illness among the most-at-risk populations.

GAZETTE: Anything else you’d like to add?

NGUYEN: To expand on my previous response, I really do think it’s important for all of us to understand that a lot of people will feel hesitant about coming back to campus, and for us to empathize with this concern. This shouldn’t be surprising because for a long time, people have been told not to come to campus unless they absolutely have to.

Yet, we should also feel encouraged, because the situation has improved dramatically as a result of vaccination and the lowering of disease rates in our surrounding communities. People who are coming back to campus for the first time in a year can be reassured by the reality that Bill’s team at EH&S has worked tirelessly over the past year to ensure that the most up-to-date safety protocols have been and will remain in place as long as needed. And that, as most of our population becomes vaccinated, the prevalence of the virus on campus to begin with will be greatly reduced.

VANSCHALKWYK: Thank you, Giang. And I would also reassure individuals that when they do return to campus, they can expect that there will be tools in place across campus to continue to help people know exactly what the most recent expectations are with regard to health and safety, including web-based trainings, communications from the University and the Schools and units, and signage across Harvard. We will do our absolute best to ensure that you know exactly how you can contribute to your own safety, and to that of your colleagues and friends, too.