Northeastern to end required COVID-19 testing

In a move that signals the next phase of COVID-19 management, Northeastern University is ending its required weekly surveillance testing at the end of the month and instead moving to optional weekly testing for asymptomatic people.

Along with the change, members of the North East community will no longer need to complete daily wellness checks before going to campus; instead, checks will only be required upon arrival for a COVID-19 test. Testing will still be needed for people with symptoms. The change will take effect on Monday, February 28, when the university will also stop using its COVID-19 dashboard.

“We will continue to monitor developments and adapt our approach as needed,” university officials wrote in a statement. “From the onset of the pandemic, our community of faculty, staff, students and others came together to become a model of flexibility, resilience and mutual support.

Northeastern has been testing all students, faculty and staff for COVID-19 since mid-August 2020. General “surveillance testing,” as it is called, of the entire community was a very effective strategy for identifying pockets of positive cases and isolating these individuals from the rest of the university population before they could infect others.

The robust testing system, which included the establishment of an in-house testing laboratory – the Life Science Test Center in Burlington, Massachusetts – enabled Northeastern to safely bring students, faculty, and staff back to campus for the fall 2020 semester.

In the nearly two years since, however, the COVID-19 landscape has changed dramatically, both on university campuses and around the world. The United States has made “significant progress” in its ability to protect itself against the virus, Jeff Zients, White House coronavirus response coordinator said wednesday. The country is “heading into a time where COVID is not a crisis, but something we can protect against and deal with,” he said.

Northeastern’s abandonment of mandatory surveillance testing is a marked step toward a new normal that includes living with the virus, which received mixed reviews from students asked about the policy change.

Sam Block, a second-year computer science student, says he supported change and that COVID-19 has faded into something that “isn’t too much of a concern anymore.”

Omicron's increased infectiousness and decreased severity in those vaccinated and boosted has led university officials to end welfare housing for students who test positive for COVID-19.  Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

On the other hand, Arya Venkat, a first-year economics student, says mandatory surveillance testing has given her peace of mind in a younger population where infection doesn’t always come with symptoms. Still, she says she is open-minded about easing various restrictions as dictated by public health guidelines.

Jared Auclairwho is an associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern and leads the university’s COVID-19 testing facility, says the change is “a logical step.”

“As we move into the next stage of the pandemic within the university, we are not removing testing. We’re just saying we’re no longer doing asymptomatic surveillance testing,” he says. “Symptomatic people should always test. And the tests are optional for anyone else who feels the need to take a test.

“We don’t turn it off,” says Auclair. “We’re just moving to a place where it’s optional if you don’t have symptoms, and if you have symptoms you have to get tested. And I think that’s a logical step.

In effect, there are many more tools in the pandemic toolbox than two years ago. Now, vaccines for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, are widely available in the United States and many other parts of the world — and Northeastern requires all students, faculty, and staff of its North American campuses are fully vaccinated. Additionally, doctors have treatments which they can use to reduce the risk of an infection becoming fatal, and the virus itself seems to mutate in a way that makes it less severe (although more contagious).

University officials are also evaluating mask requirements for all northeast campuses — decisions informed by local public health guidelines. The City of Boston has yet to lift its indoor mask requirements. At other campus locations, including Nahant and Burlington in Massachusetts, London and the San Francisco Bay Area, indoor mask requirements have already been waived and indoor mask wearing is optional on these sites.

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