Managing Covid-19 at MIT this fall: “So far, so good”

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, nearly 20,000 people are now studying, working, or living at MIT on any given day. Thanks to a robust plan to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 on campus – masking, attesting, testing, and access control – the number of positive Covid-19 cases has remained very low (at or below 0.1% of tests conducted) in recent weeks. Because of that statistic, nearly all classes, labs, and offices have been, and remain, in-person. Ian Waitz, vice chancellor for undergraduate and graduate education, who has led the MIT Covid Testing Team for the past 18 months, sums it up this way: So far, so good.

Here, Waitz, MIT Medical Director Cecilia Stuopis, and MIT Emergency Management Director Suzanne Blake discuss how MIT has weathered the pandemic – and will continue to do so – and to provide some insights on what’s next.

Q: How has MIT’s Covid-19 mitigation strategy been going this semester?

Waitz: Looking at the MIT Covid-19 testing dashboard, overall case counts have remained modest for the past few weeks, with no more than 0.1% of tests coming back positive – as has been the case throughout the term. Most of our positives continue to be related to off-campus social interactions with food and drink, social interactions without masking, household contacts of positive cases, and exposures to non-MIT positive cases off-campus. We’ve had only a couple of cases involving on-campus transmission, as has been true throughout the pandemic. Last year, out of 1,200 positives, we had only 18 cases involving transmission on campus.

Our strategy is built on three elements: a community vaccination rate greater than 98%; high-frequency surveillance testing, which enables us not only to stop community spread, but also to contain clusters before they can grow appreciably; and indoor masking. We have relied upon the data-driven model that professor of mechanical engineering Peko Hosoi developed earlier to inform and evaluate these policies.

One example of the effectiveness of our approach is that we had a three-week period earlier this fall with zero positive cases among our undergraduate students – who are living and learning together, and participating fully in athletics, activities, and events. MIT students are now benefiting from the in-person educational and campus experience made possible by our careful approach.

Our testing also continues to go well, with around 34,000 Covid tests, mostly unobserved, performed each week; with average turnaround times of less than 24 hours; and very high compliance due to the tie-in to campus access. All of our testing, the Covid Pass access system (including Tim Tickets), and our masking protocols have made it possible for around 20,000 people to regularly come to campus – more than three times the numbers seen last spring and summer.

Moreover, our attestation sync times have become shorter (typically about 15 minutes), there are additional access points to buildings across MIT, and we are taking full advantage of outdoor spaces for meetings.

I cannot say enough about the teams, in particular those from Emergency Management, IS&T [Information Systems and Technology], MIT Medical, the Office of the Vice President for Research, Facilities, and the Division of Student Life, who’ve enabled all of this, on top of doing their routine jobs. It’s nothing short of heroic.

I recently received a few emails from students who conveyed they are now able to think more about their classes, activities, and friends, and less about Covid-19. That’s the best kind of success we could have hoped for.

Q: If we are doing so well, why do we have to keep testing, attesting, and wearing masks? When might this change?

Stuopis: As Ian mentioned, things are going well – and they are going well in large part because we have stayed the course. Because of our success and the broader declining numbers across the country, I understand why so many community members might wonder, why can’t we drop the indoor mask mandate? Why can’t we test less often, if not at all? Isn’t the pandemic effectively over?

Unfortunately, we are not out of the woods – either here at MIT, around the U.S., or around the world. In fact, on campus, we are in a similar place, in terms of positive case rates, as we were last year during September and October, and we know the holidays can be unpredictable.

We are also subject to local mandates and federal regulations (which consider all of MIT a “covered contractor”). New policies for federal contractors like MIT require two weeks at low or moderate risk level in our county before we can remove masks indoors. (All of Massachusetts is currently at substantial or high risk.)

Even though most cases are mild, thanks to vaccinations, we have to keep in mind several other important factors: Vaccinations for kids ages 5 to 11 are just getting started; there are still some unvaccinated members of our community; and some community members are more vulnerable due to certain health conditions, even if fully vaccinated. At MIT Medical, we lead with the idea of protecting the most vulnerable populations to ensure what is best for the entire community.

I certainly understand the frustration of still having to wear masks indoors and staying on the testing cycle, but we are still in a pandemic. One bellwether I am looking for is when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention no longer require us to isolate those Covid-positive individuals. To me, that will be the true mark for when the pandemic has become endemic, and when we can treat Covid-19 in a way that is more similar to the way we approach influenza.

Finally, I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that all of us have lived through a major moment in history. We should reflect on the fact that the pandemic has claimed over 5 million lives worldwide. One of them was my mother – and I know there are so many more in our MIT community who have lost people who are dear to them.

Yet there is much to be hopeful about, and MIT has much to be proud of; among other accomplishments, we came together as a community to provide personal protective equipment to local health-care organizations; we ensured that our students could continue to learn and our researchers could continue their work; and we were an integral part of the amazing story about how science and engineering paved the way to creating incredibly effective vaccines in record time.

Q: What is on the near horizon?

Blake: I’d be happy to be out of the Covid business, but it’s our job to be prepared and to anticipate any challenges that lie ahead. Thankfully, we have the same structure in place that we had last academic year to manage Covid-19. This consists of the Covid Decision Team (CDT), which comprises representatives from MIT’s senior leadership and makes any major policy decisions associated with Covid-19 for MIT, and the Covid Monitoring Team (CMT), which comprises stakeholders from across the Institute who can provide perspectives from the various constituents on campus to make recommendations to the CDT and coordinate actions driven by CDT decisions.

This structure has enabled us to make the soundest decisions we can about how to move forward, all while keeping the MIT community safe, continuing MIT’s mission, and complying with the various federal, Commonwealth, and city guidelines. As those policies have been evolving and changing quite frequently, we spend countless hours decoding what they mean for MIT, and where, if possible, we can relax or modify our own policies.

It isn’t always obvious to the community how much behind-the-scenes work is required to manage Covid for MIT, and we are doing our best to maintain transparency about our decision-making. As the pandemic evolves, we continue to evaluate how masking, testing, daily attestations, and campus access apply to and impact MIT academics, research, events, student activities, residential life, visitors, and minors on campus, among other aspects of life at MIT. We are constantly discussing what we might modify, given our constraints and the public health landscape.

Just as happened last summer, when MIT leadership decided what policies and practices we needed to support a full reopening of campus, discussions about potential off-ramps, or how and when we can relax such measures, are currently top-of-mind. We will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that MIT can thrive throughout the pandemic – whatever it brings. Like the rest of the MIT community, we are looking forward to a return to simpler days on campus (and beyond!) as soon as possible.

My hope also is that we will take all of the positive and productive things we learned during the Covid-19 pandemic and come out of this an even better MIT. I want to thank everyone in our community, again and again, for their patience and cooperation in helping us to get through this. We were a strong community before Covid-19, and I think this pandemic has made us stronger than ever before.

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