Thousands of students have settled into their dorm rooms, classes have begun, the fall semester is underway on Northeastern University’s bustling Boston campus. And, even with students, faculty, and staff back in full force, COVID-19 cases are under control.
“When I look at our dashboard, there is absolutely nothing here that worries me,” says Neil Maniar, professor of public health practice, associate chair of the department of health sciences, and director of the master of public health program at Northeastern. The university publishes a Daily COVID-19 Dashboard that tracks test results, quarantine statistics, vaccination rates, known variants, and other metrics.
In the first two weeks of classes, weekly surveillance testing of everyone on the Boston campus and testing of symptomatic individuals has revealed a handful of cases among students. At the time of publication, 23 students were in quarantine and 146 students were in isolation.
But an even more important metric? Hospitalization rates. And in the first two weeks of the semester, no one at Northeastern has been sent to the hospital for COVID-19. Everyone on campus at Northeastern is required to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
With the university testing roughly 5,000 people each day, those cases have yielded a seven-day positive test rate of a fraction of a percent—0.32% to be exact. That means that just 0.32% of the tens of thousands of people tested over the course of a week at Northeastern tested positive.
“The percent positive tells a really important story,” Maniar says. “That’s telling us what the current level of transmission is. And what the Northeastern numbers tell us is that transmission is low.”
To monitor any breakthrough cases that may occur due to variants and prevent the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 on campus, the university requires weekly COVID-19 tests for everyone on campus—all students, faculty, staff and vendor employees. In accordance with local rules, masks are also required for all indoor public spaces in Boston.
“All of those protections in place are a balanced approach to how to deal with the risk while still meeting our missions in education and research,” says Ken Henderson, chancellor of Northeastern University.
Northeastern’s goals for testing this year are distinct from what they were when the university re-opened a year ago, with fewer students on campus and no coronavirus vaccines yet authorized for use. At the time, to stop the spread of the disease, the university tested everyone on campus multiple times a week and isolated anyone who tested positive. Anyone who had close contact with someone who tested positive was also quarantined.
But this year, vaccines have changed the landscape. All students, faculty, and staff are required to be fully vaccinated. While breakthrough cases do occur, they are largely asymptomatic or mild. The vaccines have been shown to significantly reduce the risk of severe cases and death.
“We’re doing mass testing of an entire community, and that is something to be aware of when people look at the numbers, because we’re clearly picking up many asymptomatic cases and individuals who otherwise would not be detected within the community,” Henderson says.
While some of the cases that the university has seen are symptomatic, most are mild cases that last for a short time.
Henderson says the university was expecting to see some positive cases as the semester began, given the highly infectious delta variant, the rate of breakthrough infections in the world more broadly, and the fact that thousands of students were coming together from around the world in a way not seen since early 2020.
“It is really important to know the difference in the pre-vaccine world versus the post-vaccine world,” Henderson says. With vaccine protections significantly reducing the likelihood of severe illness, positive test results are less concerning, he says. For the vaccinated Northeastern community, Henderson says, “The dynamic of risk has changed.”
To keep tabs on any outbreaks, Northeastern’s COVID-19 Wellness Team is emphasizing the importance of contact tracing to determine whether precautions need to shift in certain areas or activities on campus. Right now, most transmission appears to be happening at off-campus social gatherings, Henderson says.
The university continues to monitor case rates closely, watching for trends indicating any need to adjust pandemic precautions. Northeastern’s COVID-19 testing facility, the Life Sciences Testing Center in Burlington, Massachusetts, is also taking testing a step further. Any samples that test positive are also tested to determine which variant of the coronavirus is causing that infection. The goal is for the university to better understand what may be circulating in the community.
“All of this is providing us with critical information so that we can act in a thoughtful and informed manner,” Maniar says. “We are truly making data-driven decisions in terms of how we’re responding. And that is one of the hallmarks of success.”
Maniar credits everyone in the Northeastern community for making reopening possible beginning in the fall of 2020.
“This is going to remain a community-wide effort. But we’re clearly doing the right things right now,” he says. “As a community, Northeastern has really set an example for the country in terms of what success looks like.”
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