Despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, nearly 20,000 people now study, work or live at MIT on any given day. Thanks to a robust plan to limit the spread of Covid-19 on campus – masking, attestation, testing and access control – the number of positive Covid-19 cases has recently remained very low (at or below 0.1% of the population). tests performed). to soften. Because of that statistic, almost all classes, labs, and offices were and remain personal. 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 like this: 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 insight into what’s next.
Q: How has MIT’s Covid-19 mitigation strategy been going this semester?
Wait: Looking at the MIT Covid-19 testing dashboard, the total number of cases has remained modest in recent weeks, with no more than 0.1% of tests coming back positive – as they did over the entire term. Most of our positives are still related to off-campus social interactions with food and drink, unmasked social interactions, household contacts of positive cases, and exposure to non-MIT positive off-campus cases. We’ve only had a few cases of on-campus transmission, as was the case during the pandemic. Last year, out of 1,200 positives, we had only 18 cases of transmission on campus.
Our strategy is based on three elements: a community vaccination rate of over 98%; high-frequency surveillance tests, which allow us not only to stop the spread of communities, but also to contain clusters before they can grow appreciably; and masking indoors. We relied on the data-driven model that mechanical engineering professor Peko Hosoi developed earlier to inform and evaluate these policies.
An example of the effectiveness of our approach is that earlier this fall, we had a three-week period of zero positive cases among our undergraduate students — living and learning together and participating fully in athletics, activities, and events. MIT students now benefit from the personalized teaching and campus experience made possible by our meticulous approach.
Our testing also continues to run well, with about 34,000 Covid tests, mostly undetected, being performed each week; with an average lead time of less than 24 hours; and very high compliance through the link with campus access. All of our testing, the Covid Pass entry system (including Tim Tickets), and our masking protocols have enabled approximately 20,000 people to come to campus regularly — more than three times as many as last spring and summer.
In addition, our attestation sync times have decreased (usually around 15 minutes), there are additional access points to buildings in MIT, and we are making the most of outdoor meeting spaces.
I can’t say enough about the teams, especially those from Emergency Management, IS&T [Information Systems and Technology], MIT Medical, the office of the vice president for research, facilities and the Department of Student Life, who have made all this possible, in addition to doing their routine chores. It’s nothing short of heroic.
I recently received a few emails from students saying that they can now 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’re doing so well, why do we have to keep testing, testifying and wearing masks? When can this change?
Stuopis: As Ian said, things are going well – and they’re going well in large part because we’ve stayed on track. Because of our success and the wider declining numbers across the country, I understand why so many community members are asking, Why can’t we drop the indoor mask mandate? Why can’t we test less often, if not? Is the pandemic not effectively over?
Unfortunately, we’re not out of the woods – here at MIT, in the US, or around the world. In fact, on campus, we’re in a similar place, in terms of positives, to last year in September and October, and we know that the holidays can be unpredictable.
We are also subject to local mandates and federal regulations (which all of MIT considers a “covered contractor”). New policies for federal contractors like MIT require two weeks at a low or moderate risk level in our county before we can remove masks indoors. (All of Massachusetts is currently at significant or high risk.)
While most cases are mild, vaccinations allow us to consider a number of other important factors: Vaccinations for children 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 when fully vaccinated. At MIT Medical, we are at the forefront 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 stick with the test cycle, but we’re still in a pandemic. One clock I’m looking for is when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will no longer require us to isolate those Covid-positive individuals. To me, that will be the true sign 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 flu.
Finally, I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that we have all experienced a significant moment in history. We need to think about the fact that the pandemic has claimed more than 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 dear to them.
Still, there is much to be hopeful about, and MIT has much to be proud of; among other achievements, we came together as a community to provide personal protective equipment to local health organizations; we ensured that our students could continue to learn and that our researchers could continue their work; and we were integral to the amazing story of how science and engineering paved the way for creating incredibly effective vaccines in record time.
Q: What’s on the near horizon?
blake: I would love to be out of the Covid business, but our job is to be prepared and anticipate any challenges ahead. Fortunately, we have the same structure we had last academic year to manage Covid-19. This consists of the Covid Decision Team (CDT), which consists of representatives of MIT’s senior leadership and who makes key policy decisions related to Covid-19 for MIT, and the Covid Monitoring Team (CMT), which consists of stakeholders from the institution-wide that provide perspectives from the various campus voters to make recommendations to the CDT and coordinate actions driven by CDT decisions.
This structure has enabled us to make the healthiest decisions about how to move forward while keeping the MIT community safe, continuing MIT’s mission and complying with various federal, Commonwealth and city guidelines. Because these policies evolve and change quite often, we spend countless hours deciphering what they mean for MIT, and where we can relax or adjust our own policies, if possible.
It’s not always clear to the community how much behind-the-scenes work is needed to manage Covid for MIT, and we do our best to maintain transparency in our decision-making. As the pandemic evolves, we continue to evaluate how masking, testing, daily attestation and campus access will apply to and affect MIT academics, research, events, student activities, residential life, visitors and minors on campus, among others. aspects of campus life. MIT. We are constantly discussing what we could change, given our limitations and the public health landscape.
Just as happened last summer, when MIT leadership decided what policies and practices we needed to support a full campus reopening, discussions abound about possible exits, or how and when we can relax such measures. , currently leading the way. We will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that MIT can thrive during the pandemic – whatever it may bring. Like the rest of the MIT community, we look forward to returning to simpler days on campus (and beyond!) as soon as possible.
I also hope that we will use all the positive and productive things we have learned during the Covid-19 pandemic and make an even better MIT out of this. I want to thank everyone in our community, time and again, for their patience and cooperation in helping us get through this. We were a strong community before Covid-19, and I think this pandemic has made us stronger than ever before.