With the Covid-19 Omicron rise largely behind us and the correspondingly steep drop in Covid-19 positivity on campus, MIT has begun to loosen some Covid-19-related restrictions. Perhaps most notable is the transition from compulsory to optional testing for all faculties and staff, and the drop from testing twice a week to testing once a week for students and residents.
In a recent discussion, Cecilia Stuopis, director of MIT Medical, said; Anette “Peko” Hosoi, Neil and Jane Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering; and Ian A. Waitz, vice chancellor of undergraduate and graduate programs, offered further insight into MIT’s recent policy decision and their hopes for a gradual return to normalcy.
Q: As Covid-19 cases have been declining at MIT and in the surrounding community, what does it tell us about the state of the pandemic? Should people change their behavior?
Cecilia Stuopis: Right now, things are looking better than they have been doing for months. Wastewater data for the greater Boston area, an excellent, objective indicator shows that the number of Covid-19 infections in the surrounding communities is rapidly declining. The prevalence is on par now with the start of the fall semester. While the virus is still with us, it seems clear that the Omicron wave has largely passed.
Thanks to our vaccine and booster mandate, the MIT community has done well through the recent rise. Although more than 4,000 of us were diagnosed with Covid-19 in the last few months, we know of no Omicron-related hospitalizations or deaths. Covid-19 was not mild for everyonebut together we can do it.
While we may not know for sure what living with this virus will look like in the coming years, we do know that members of the MIT community through vaccines, boosters, and infections are less susceptible to severe outbreaks from Covid-19. We should not be complacent, but we should not be afraid either. We must remember that health is much more than just “not having Covid-19.” It is about ensuring that we all have what we need for our physical and mental well-being. For many of us, this means starting to spend time with people we have not been able to see as much as we would like, planning vacations and travel again, returning to activities we enjoyed before the pandemic, and refocusing on friends, families, and loved ones.
Right now, living with Covid-19 does not mean we have to drop all precautions. We still need to mask inside the campus buildings. We should continue to be cautious in crowds. It is still important to pay attention when eating with others indoors. I think of it as a disc, not a switch. There are measures that each of us can take to protect ourselves, to varying degrees, depending on the conditions around us and what we think our personal risks may be. This is how we can effectively begin to live with the reality that Covid-19 will never completely disappear.
MIT Medical continues to monitor data in the event that we need to make future changes to test protocols and other mitigation strategies. We are ready to turn quickly. Omicron may not be the last highly transferable, immunosuppressive variant we will encounter. Covid-19 may not be our last pandemic. However, MIT has proven that we can successfully navigate these challenges and we will do it again if need be.
Q: What role does testing play now, especially since Omicron has been so contagious? How and why is MIT changing its approach to dealing with the pandemic?
Peko Hosoi: Throughout the pandemic, MIT has focused on implementing the most effective and efficient mitigation strategies available to us to control the spread of the virus. We are constantly updating our approach as both the virus and the mitigation landscape evolve. Remember the beginning of the pandemic: We had no vaccines, we rationed PPE, and we did not know much about how the virus was transmitted. Back then, surveillance testing was one of the best (and only!) Weapons we had.
Things are very different now. We are a highly vaccinated and boosted community, making the risk of serious Covid-19 disease comparable to seasonal flu. We have an abundance of KN95 and KF94 masks, which have been shown to be extremely effective in limiting the spread of the virus. Our strongest mitigation strategies – masking, vaccination and boosting – are all individual rather than institutional. And the best testing strategies also shift in that direction.
Testing does not disappear, and because Omicron spreads so fast, adjusting the timing of tests is a much more effective strategy than adjusting the test frequency. For example, suppose my regular test day is Wednesday, and I’m going to a weekend gathering where I’m Covid-19. When I get tested on Wednesday, I will already have been interacting with people on campus for several days during my (unconsciously) most contagious period. This could be solved by increasing my test frequency. However, because the Omicron variant is so transmissible and people become contagious so quickly after infection, it would require everyone to be tested several times each day if they limited spread by surveillance testing alone (i.e., without other strategies such as well-fitting masks).
A better approach is to be strategic about when we test. In the example above, where I know I have spent time over the weekend in a situation of increased exposure risk, I should test Monday rather than wait until Wednesday. Only you know when your risk level has been increased, so only you know when to test. This change in policy does not stop testing; rather, it shifts control of test timing to the individual.
A shift from institutional to individual responsibility will, understandably, likely cause anxiety. Even the most careless members of our community probably wonder, “Can I trust my neighbor (individually) to do the right thing?” There are two things that can be helpful to keep in mind if that question arises. First, you are the one who has the most control over the management of your risk level. If you are worried about your neighbor’s behavior, you can always take control of the situation by putting on your KN95 or KF94 mask. Second, we have come through the last two years with relatively little drama; this was possible because the overwhelming majority of our population was actually doing the right thing.
The last two years have shown me very clearly that we can trust each other to act responsibly in a time of crisis. It gives me a lot of confidence that we can continue to count on each other to do the right thing when we shift control from the department to the individual members of our community.
Q: How will policies and protocols evolve in the coming weeks and months? Or when can the masks come off? When can MIT feel more like MIT again?
Ian Waitz: From the beginning of the pandemic, we have taken a science-based approach in many layers that balanced the needs of our campus and the surrounding communities. We prioritized flexibility so that we could increase or decrease preventive measures such as masking and testing as needed. And so far, the approach has worked. Our community’s commitment to protecting itself and others has been incredible.
We have had relatively low positive rates and very limited spread on campus, and we successfully adapted during the most challenging phases of the pandemic – such as Omicron. Most importantly, we have worked hard to balance a range of priorities, such as the value of personal learning and work environments, our mental health, and our physical health. It is impossible to get the balance exactly right for everyone at all times because we all have different needs and priorities, which is why we often ask people to be patient and empathetic to the needs of others. But overall, I think we’ve done a good job of adjusting as conditions have changed – sometimes quite quickly, as was the case with Omicron. Over the past two years, life on campus has continued to be characterized by very low transmission compared to the rest of our lives off campus. Because of the conditions around us, as Cecilia described, we believe that now is the time to make further adjustments.
We now allow food for events, expand the dining room seating, allow the faculty to teach unmasked (provided all students are masked) and bring fans back to our sporting events. In addition, we will reduce the required test to once a week for students, residents and unvaccinated individuals. Tests for everyone else will be on-demand / as needed. Later we hope to get everyone to test on-demand / as needed. Certification, indoor masking, and 90-day test exemptions for those tested positive remain.
The mandatory campus surveillance test has been a critically valuable component throughout the pandemic. But as Peko explained, we now need to change our strategy to use it most effectively. We will now use it in a more targeted way for those who think they may be infected or have been exposed to the virus. Doing so also marks a shift from MIT being responsible for keeping you safe to you being responsible for staying safe. Most of us are incredibly well protected against Covid-19, and those who are most at risk or living with them at higher risk now have well-understood tools to stay safe.
For those ready to see a pre-pandemic, unmasked MIT, we would too! However, we ask for patience. We are not quite ready for that, as we are gradually working to reduce restrictions and monitor conditions while we do so. Further, we need to balance our plans with state and local guidance. MIT can not make rules at fiat, even though we are model citizens in terms of vaccination rates. For now, the city of Cambridge is determined to keep the masking – a policy we hope will ease in the coming weeks and months.
Getting over Covid-19 is not going to happen all at once. Nor is it going to happen at the same time for every person. We have been through a historic and intense event. Recovery will be a process.
Everyone at MIT has been incredible in the way they have taken care of themselves and each other. Now, more than ever, that’s what matters most.