COVID-19 outbreak forces some Harvard Business School students online

Other Boston-area institutions with high vaccination rates managing smaller reported cases well during pandemic.
By: | September 27, 2021
©Susan Young for Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School has shut down in-person instruction for all first-year MBA students and some second-year students until at least Oct. 3 amid a spike in positive coronavirus cases. For now, the outbreak seems to be limited to only HBS and not the rest of the university community.

The graduate school has had 60 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the past week, compared with just 12 among Harvard’s undergraduate population. Because of the rise in cases, students at the school now will be tested three times a week, a stunning indication of how quickly the tables can turn even on a campus setting where 95% of students, faculty and staff have gotten vaccines.

“We’ve seen a steady rise in breakthrough infections among our student population, despite high vaccination rates and frequent testing,” a spokesman for the school said in a statement. “Contact tracers who have worked with positive cases highlight that transmission is not occurring in classrooms or other academic settings on campus. Nor is it occurring among individuals who are masked.”

Harvard is warning its community to remain vigilant and adhere to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols, including trying to avoid gatherings in the short term. The university does have an indoor mask policy, but Dr. Giang Nguyen, Executive Director of Harvard University Health Services, said in a statement that “the greatest risk continues to be off-campus social settings, large and small, where individuals are not masked.”

“We continue to see here at Harvard and in the surrounding community the effects of the highly contagious delta variant,” he said. “While our Harvard community’s high vaccination rate is helping us avoid serious illnesses from COVID-19 infection, the continued spread of this virus represents a critical risk both on and off campus. We are observing that, even for vaccinated persons, infections can and do occur, particularly when individuals are exposed to large numbers of people in unmasked indoor settings.”

In a city like Boston, where students come on and off campus frequently and use subways to get to other locations—including the dozens of college campuses in the Hub—there is concern that one outbreak even within the city could lead to another.

But so far, COVID-19 numbers at other campuses, including those in the Cambridge area where Harvard is located, have remained low compared with others across the region. At neighboring MIT, there have been 15 cases in the past seven days for a .05% positivity rate, one of the lowest in the city.

Across Boston-area institutions, which all have vaccine mandates in place, numbers look OK for now:

  • One of the largest, Northeastern University, has had 43 cases in the past week (0.21%), while Boston University has had 30 cases. Though not confirmed, breakthrough cases may be occurring there as well, as Northeastern’s student population is 99.1% vaccinated while BU’s is above 95%.
  • At UMass-Boston, there have been 18 positive reports in the past seven days despite a 99.4% vaccination rate.
  • At Boston College, there have been 32 positive cases in the past week and 208 overall since the semester began in mid-August among students, staff and faculty. The positivity rate has hovered between 0.3% and 0.4%.
  • Tufts University, located just outside the city in Medford, reports 31 positive cases.

A few institutions this fall have had to shift to remote learning because of COVID outbreaks on their campuses, including La Salle University in Philadelphia and Liberty University in Virginia. Both have returned to in-person learning as numbers have improved. But most institutions are managing to handle cases and keeping students in classes while isolating close contacts. However, some faculty at institutions where mandates are not in place or in states that ban them, have expressed discomfort with instruction in person.