At 10:15 p.m. on Sept. 14, Edwin “Eddie” B. Jin ’24 received a positive COVID-19 test result.
Because Harvard University Health Services does not operate at night, he didn’t hear anything more until 5:43 a.m. the following morning, when he received an email from FAS Registrar Michael P. Burke explaining how to move into isolation housing.
By the time an HUHS contact tracer called Jin at noon the next day, he had already talked to most people he had recently seen.
“For people who you’ve only known for two weeks, it's a pretty hard thing to tell someone,” Jin said. “Like, ‘I have COVID. You need to lock yourself inside your room for the next two weeks.’”
But Jin says his medical situation soon became less clear-cut.
After entering isolation at the Harvard Square Hotel on Sept. 15, Jin tested negative for COVID-19 twice. He has tested negative ever since.
For the more than 1,600 Harvard students who lived on campus this fall, regular testing became as much a part of their college routine as problem sets or club meetings. But nearly a dozen students interviewed by The Crimson said they often felt puzzled by the University’s testing and tracing infrastructure. Some said they did not know how to interpret contradictory test results; others were unsure whether and for how long they should isolate.
Students living on campus this semester dropped off self-administered tests three times a week at certain sites using kits designed by Color Genomics. The Broad Institute then processed the tests, allowing Color to notify students of their test results, often within a day. If an undergraduate tested positive, they would enter isolation — moving to a specific University-designated location. Their close contacts could quarantine in their rooms.
Jin and several others said much of their confusion stemmed from late or conflicting information they received from HUHS.
One month after he received his lone positive test, Jin tested negative for a COVID-19 antibody test — which identifies antibodies that an individual has produced in response to past infections — during a sports physical.
Six other students, all of whom received a positive test between Nov. 13 and Nov. 16, reported similar uncertainty. After returning no positive results during October, undergraduates experienced a spike in positive tests during the middle of November.
After receiving a positive test result on Nov. 15, Eric Yan ’24 checked into the Hotel at around 12:30 p.m. A nurse visited his room over the next two days to pick up two self-administered COVID-19 tests. Both came back negative the following day.
Yan said he wondered whether the negative results might change the length of time Harvard would require him to isolate. HUHS told him to expect a call on Nov. 18.
Eventually, HUHS Patient Advocate Mallory Finne told Yan on Nov. 19 via email that he had to remain at the hotel until the end of the 10-day isolation period despite subsequent negative test results, he said.
Several students said that they initially heard they could leave if their first two tests in isolation came back negative. On Nov. 18, however, the Massachusetts’ Department of Public Health revised isolation and quarantine policies for higher education institutions. Students who tested positive for COVID-19 isolating in campus housing “should remain in place until completing the 10-day isolation period, as prescribed by DPH guidance,” the announcement said on Nov. 18, when Finne contacted Yan. Yard proctors emailed summaries of the new developments to students later that day.
Though HUHS notified Yan on Wednesday of the 10-day isolation period, he received another call on Nov. 19 from HUHS informing him he and his close contacts should expect an email extending the isolation and quarantine period to 14 days.
“This is an email that neither myself nor any of my contacts ever got,” Yan said.
Other students in isolation, several of whom The Crimson granted anonymity to discuss confidential medical information, also said they received conflicting or confusing information.
One student, who had tested positive on Nov. 16, said she had to reschedule her flight home twice, costing her an extra $500. While most students in isolation received tests the first two days at the hotel, she said she received only one test without an explanation of the change in state guidelines.
One student who self-reported a positive test on Crimson Clear said HUHS contacted them with instructions for isolating only about ten hours after they received the result. Although they stayed inside, they could have gone out and infected other people, they said. They also said that they felt confused and did not receive any communication about why they did not continue to receive tests in isolation.
Another undergraduate said she received a call at 9 p.m. on Nov. 16 after receiving a positive test. The caller told her HUHS would follow up shortly, but at 1 a.m. she went to sleep after hearing nothing.
The next day, she said she texted her HUHS contact and got an email with instructions for isolating only after her text around 1 p.m.
Yan and Jin both said they found getting consistent information from HUHS challenging.
“It was not easy to get information,” Yan said. “Also, there was definitely some inconsistent information, which was kind of stressful when you're in isolation.”
Jin also described the difficulty of moving to the Harvard Square Hotel and dealing with the uncertain implications of his positive test result as he juggled his normal responsibilities.
“Throughout this entire time, I had to deal with my academic courses. There was no break and I was involved in other extracurriculars that were pretty demanding at the time,” Jin said. “It's a huge disruption, you want to take the time for yourself, but at the same time, you can't because there's so much else swirling around. And that's just the essence of COVID generally I think.”
Asked about students’ frustrations with HUHS, Senior Communications Officer Michael Perry referred to a previous comment provided to the Crimson.
“As always, HUHS operates under the guidance and regulations of local public health officials to keep Harvard and our communities safe,” HUHS Executive Director Giang T. Nguyen wrote in an emailed statement. “As we’ve seen throughout this pandemic, guidance can evolve and change rapidly. We understand that some students have been frustrated with isolation and quarantine protocols recently.”
Yan said that he had to ask Finne, the patient advocate, about how to interpret potentially false results, who responded via email explaining that he shouldn’t test for the next 90 days. The CDC states that if an individual who tested positive for a COVID-19 PCR test remains asymptomatic for 90 days after symptom onset, re-testing is “unlikely to yield useful information.”
“What I was basically told was that the negative test results do not mean that the positive test was false,” Yan said. “That is just because this virus takes a different course in every patient. It could just be on the day at the time that you took the test, the virus did not appear in your nasal passages.”
But Sarah Fortune — Chair of Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases and Associate Member of the Broad Institute — explained that low COVID-19 rates at Harvard make false positives more likely.
“The prevalence of COVID is relatively low at Harvard and therefore — even though the COVID PCR test has excellent performance characteristics — there will be more false positives for every true positive than there would be in a population with a higher prevalence of infection,” Fortune said in an emailed statement. “The strategy of frequent testing of a relatively low prevalence population implicitly accepts the downside of some false positives as the cost of stringent COVID containment.”
Jin said he understood the College has dealt with unprecedented challenges during the pandemic, but that he hopes student feedback can inform future improvements.
“I'm fully cognizant of the fact that it's not easy to prepare for the global pandemic in a couple of months and do all that the Harvard administration is doing,” Jin said. “I commend Harvard for all that they're doing, but there's still room to improve.”