What Happens When a Harvard Student Tests Positive for Covid-19?


The coronavirus pandemic has brought a plethora of new measures to Harvard’s campus, including social distancing, mask wearing, and avoiding in-person gatherings. Among the most disruptive is leaving campus for isolation housing upon testing positive for the coronavirus.

Consistent with the fall semester, students living on campus self-administer three polymerase chain reaction tests — known as PCR tests — per week using kits designed by Color Genomics, a health and technology company. Students then drop off their tests in designated gray bins around campus. The Broad Institute processes their test kits, and Color Genomics notifies students of their test results on the company’s online portal, often within a day.

Results are listed as negative, positive, unsatisfactory, or inconclusive. When results come back as negative, students are free to continue with their usual activities. When results come back as inconclusive or unsatisfactory, students are asked to submit a replacement test as quickly as possible to be reprocessed.

Of the 85,501 Covid-19 tests conducted on undergraduates since June 1 of last summer, 54 undergraduate students have tested positive for Covid-19 as of Feb. 23. Here’s what happens after a student receives a positive test result.


Step 1: Upon Receiving A Positive Result

Students will receive a phone call from Harvard University Health Services notifying them of their positive result, as well as an email from Faculty of Arts and Sciences Registrar Mike Burke that explains how they should proceed.

The email instructs students to temporarily isolate in their bedroom until they check into isolation housing. Students are asked only to leave to use the bathroom. Students should register for meal deliveries from Harvard University Dining Services over text, inform their families that they have tested positive for Covid-19, and pack for isolation, per the email.

Students are also sent a room number, check-in time, and directions to their room at the Harvard Square Hotel, where College students isolate.

If students are unable to move to isolation housing by themselves, they can contact HUHS, which will help transport the student to isolation housing safely, HUHS spokesperson Michael Perry wrote in an email.

Burke's email acknowledges that many individuals who test positive for Covid-19 only exhibit mild symptoms, but asks students to contact HUHS immediately if they experience severe symptoms including trouble breathing or persistent chest pain.

Burke’s email also asks students to take care of their mental health. The email, which notes “it can be stressful and lonely to be separated from others," provides contact information for Counseling and Mental Health Services.

Step 2: Contact Tracing

Shortly after a student tests positive, an HUHS contact tracer will call the student to help them identify their close contacts.

HUHS will then reach out separately to those named contacts to notify them they may have been exposed to the coronavirus. Close contacts are defined as individuals who have been within six feet for at least 15 minutes within the two days prior to the positive test or before symptoms arose, per Perry.

Generally, contacts are instructed to self-quarantine in their dorm rooms and are given specific instructions on those guidelines during the call. Students may be eligible for early release if they exhibit no symptoms for 10 days and receive a negative test result on the eighth day or later, Perry added.

If contacts do not have their own room and bathroom, HUHS recommends they remain in their bedroom except to use the bathroom or take a coronavirus test. If they share a bathroom, HUHS advises another person not use it for at least 15 minutes, Perry wrote.

In certain circumstances, based on exposure to someone who has tested positive for Covid-19, HUHS may decide to move contacts into isolation housing at the Harvard Square Hotel. HUHS has done so fewer than five times since it started contact tracing, according to Perry.

Contacts have a modified testing schedule to limit time spent outside of their rooms. HUHS recommends testing at least once during the quarantine period.

Perry wrote that all conversations students have with contact tracers are confidential, and contact tracers do not share information with the Community Council or Ad Board. The identity of the positive case also remains confidential during the contact tracing process. All contacts are notified that they have been exposed to someone who tested positive for Covid-19 and the date on which they were exposed. HUHS contact tracers will not confirm a name if asked.

Step 3: Isolation

Consistent with guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, students are expected to stay in their Harvard Square Hotel room for the entirety of the isolation period, which usually lasts 10 days.

A HUHS staff member will call the student every day to conduct wellness checks, ask if the student is experiencing any symptoms or needs any supplies, and inform the student when they plan to pay an in-person visit to the student later that day. The staff member will then visit the student in person to take their temperature and check their oxygen levels, per the registrar's email.

Within these daily check-ins, if significant mental health concerns arise, students are referred to CAMHS for further support, Chief of CAMHS Barbara Lewis wrote in an emailed statement.

Whether students are in isolation or quarantine, Lewis wrote that CAMHS offers services remotely over the phone or Zoom.

“The CAMHS team understands and empathizes with our students who are experiencing the stress of navigating through a pandemic and the loneliness that you may be feeling, especially for those who are in isolation and quarantine,” she wrote.

Resident Deans will also reach out to students in isolation to help them obtain any academic accommodations they may need.

Step 4: Returning to Campus

After leaving isolation, students return to their dorms and do not submit Covid-19 tests for 90 days — roughly the time it takes the body to completely shed the virus, according to Perry.

The 90-day testing exemption does not apply to contacts, only individuals who have tested positive.

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

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


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