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Harvard Campus Covid Cases Surge to Highest-Ever Rate as the Fall Semester Winds Down

Harvard reported 138 Covid-19 cases last week.
Harvard reported 138 Covid-19 cases last week. By Truong L. Nguyen
By Claire H. Guo and Christine Mui, Crimson Staff Writers

UPDATED: December 17, 2021 at 12:54 p.m.

Harvard's Covid-19 case count has surged over the last week to its highest point since the start of the pandemic, sending hundreds of affiliates into isolation while students begin to depart for winter break.

The spike, which includes at least 317 positive cases in the last seven days, elevated the campus positivity rate to 0.76 percent as of Friday morning, according to the University’s Covid-19 dashboard. The surge in cases comes as schools around the region are struggling to contain the pandemic, a trend that has forced several peer institutions to move end-of-semester operations online.

On Thursday, Harvard moved all its undergraduate dining halls exclusively to grab-and-go services and urged students not to congregate in eating areas. Previously, undergrads were allowed to dine unmasked in undergraduate dining halls.

Harvard reported 138 new Covid cases last week — two more than its last surge during the week of Aug. 29. The school has reported more than 50 new cases each day so far this week.

In an email to Harvard affiliates Tuesday, Provost Alan M. Garber '76, Executive Vice President Katherine N. Lapp, and Executive Director of Harvard University Health Services Giang T. Nguyen cited a “concerning increase in positive cases” and urged affiliates to immediately take protective measures such as minimizing contact with others and scheduling a booster shot.

“It is essential that each of us take every step possible to protect ourselves and those around us,” they wrote. “As the prevalence of COVID-19 in our community keeps rising, activities that seemed safe just weeks ago must now be considered high risk.”

Prior to the current spike, Harvard had been largely successful at containing the virus on its campus, with just one substantial flare-up of cases during the final week of August.

The current spike — which has occured among undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty and staff — comes as the Cambridge area is also experiencing a rise in cases.

The University has not announced a Covid-19 booster mandate, but the administrators wrote that Harvard is now “strongly considering the possibility of requiring boosters, especially if the CDC updates its definition of full vaccination to include boosters.”

In their email, the administrators also wrote that HUHS contract tracing has not identified any evidence of Covid-19 transmission within the classroom. Rather, they attributed the spike to recent unmasked social events, adding that students should “seriously consider cancelling any upcoming indoor celebrations that involve unmasking.”

Several large social events held in recent weeks — including the Quad and River East winter formals, which were held at Boston's Royale nightclub — were linked to Covid-19 exposure.

HUHS sent individual alerts to students who RSVP'd to the Dec. 2 River East formal — hosted by Dunster House, Mather House, and Leverett House — notifying them of potential exposure. Separately, house committees and administrators at Cabot, Currier, and Pforzheimer Houses, which organized the Quad Formal, emailed residents to warn of potential exposure and urge formal attendees to monitor themselves for symptoms.

Harvard did not send individual alerts to Quad Formal attendees because organizers did not have a complete list of attendees, according to University spokesperson Jason A. Newton.

Students who attended a Dec. 7 event hosted by the Harvard College Consulting Group were also sent a contact tracing email by HUHS urging them not to attend class or other events if they experienced symptoms of the virus.

Mask-wearing was scant at the events, though HCCG asked all attendees to submit proof of a negative Covid-19 test.

HCCG and the house committees that organized the Quad and River East formals did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday afternoon.

Princeton and Cornell have each moved final exams online due to Covid-19 surges in the last week, with some cases suspected to be the Omicron variant.

Some Harvard students said contracting Covid-19 disrupted their final exams and winter break travel plans.

Adam W. Xiao ’24, who tested positive for Covid-19 and moved into isolation housing at the Harvard Square Hotel on Dec. 11, said he would have to miss an exam in Economics 1010a: "Intermediate Microeconomics" scheduled for Saturday, the last day of finals.

“I’m honestly a little bit upset,” Xiao said. “I reached out to the head TF and talked to my resident dean about it, and the answer I was told was a firm ‘no’ in terms of doing it remote.”

Subsequently, Ec1010 professor Maxim Boycko announced that students in the course would be able to take the test on a proctored Zoom call.

Harvard College spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an emailed statement that students will be able to petition the Administrative Board for permission to make up any final exams in-person in early February.

Professors can grant extensions up to Dec. 18 on final assignments, but the Ad Board must approve any extensions beyond the last day of exams.

Ngoc Tram H. Nguyen ’22 said she believed she contracted Covid-19 while traveling back to campus from Thanksgiving break. After testing positive on Dec. 6, Nguyen said she was able to receive emergency funding from Harvard to cover flight change fees.

Though she originally planned to fly home on Tuesday, Harini S. Kannan '24 said she had to cancel her flight after testing positive for Covid-19 and moving into isolation housing on Dec. 11.

Kannan plans to drive home with her father on Friday to isolate at her home in Maryland. Students are allowed to isolate off campus as long as they meet conditions such as isolating with a private bedroom and bathroom and avoiding public transportation, according to guidelines provided to students who test positive.

“I always felt like, ‘Oh, it would never happen to me’ because I do think I'm pretty careful about these things,” Kannan said. “But I think it goes to show that, one, maybe we can all always do better, and two, you can’t be entirely safe.”

—Staff writer Claire H. Guo can be reached at claire.guo@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @clairehguo.

—Staff writer Christine Mui can be reached at christine.mui@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MuiChristine.

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