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The emergence of the Omicron variant means that Harvard will “likely not be fully back to normal in the spring,” but the University remains in “very good shape” on the public health front, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 said during a faculty meeting Tuesday.
In an interview with The Crimson last month, Garber said it was “a fairly safe bet” that Harvard would loosen Covid-19 restrictions in the spring semester, including potentially allowing lecturers and small groups to unmask indoors.
However, the discovery of the novel variant of Covid-19 — first detected by a Harvard-affiliated lab on Nov. 19 — means that “the shadow of Omicron is obviously with us,” according to Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay.
“We always knew the option to offer unmasked teaching would be contingent on public health conditions,” Gay said. “As always, we’ll be prepared to pivot to whatever conditions we confront in January.”
Garber stressed that while scientists are still working to understand the impact of the new strain, preliminary research suggests that Omicron “appears less severe.”
“You can be fairly confident in the belief that it is more contagious than previous variants,” Garber said. “We don’t have much data, but the data we have are reassuring that it causes less serious infections.”
At the meeting, Garber also urged faculty to obtain booster shots of the Covid-19 vaccine, which he said could “help reduce severe transmission.” Despite the novel strain, Garber said the public health situation in the spring would likely improve.
“Travel is going to be a bit iffy, especially overseas,” he said. “We will likely not be fully back to normal in the spring. But I think we will continue, and spring will be better, rather than worse, than the fall.”
Harvard has only seen “perhaps” two hospitalizations due to Covid-19 among vaccinated affiliates out of roughly 1,200 breakthrough infections this year, according to Garber. Garber credited a low rate of spread on campus to “near vaccination of the entire community.”
“It is an extremely rare occurrence for a member of the Harvard community who is vaccinated to get sick enough to require hospitalization,” Garber said.
Reflecting on Harvard’s return to in-person operations, Garber also applauded the “extraordinary commitment of the Harvard community along so many dimensions.”
“I feel like I really need to call out the College, because when you think of what people were saying early on about the behavior of 18-to-24-year-olds, it is like our students were determined to prove the naysayers wrong,” he added.
Also at Tuesday’s faculty meeting, Dean of the Arts and Humanities Robin E. Kelsey presented the report of the Task Force on Visual Culture and Signage, which was released Monday.
“The task force was a testament to what we can do when we come together across boundaries within our institution to renew Harvard,” said Kelsey, who chaired the task force. “Ours is a time of reckoning — [a chance to examine] the stories our campus tells and does not tell, whom we honor and whom we forget, and how well we welcome new visitors to our campus.”
A new FAS Standing Committee on Visual Culture and Signage, which Gay established in response to the task force’s recommendations, as well as a newly appointed FAS Campus Curator, will be tasked with implementing the committee’s suggestions.
“I believe this is a watershed moment for our campus as a place of learning and discovery,” Kelsey said.
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