Why one university with vaccine mandate is requiring COVID testing

International student arrivals and the Delta variant complicate decisions.
By: | July 15, 2021
Yushang Xu/Unsplash

Northeastern University will require all students to undergo mandatory COVID-19 testing again this fall as an added precaution as international students arrive and positive cases spurred by the Delta variant rise in Massachusetts.

The requirement is significant because Northeastern already has imposed a vaccination mandate for all students.

“Our North Star is safety,” said Ken Henderson, chancellor and senior vice president for learning, told the Northeastern News. “By doing testing, we will gather information in order to make the best science-based decisions we can.”

In a letter to students obtained by University Business, Henderson highlighted the potential uncertainty of vaccinations and COVID positive cases among students coming from other countries. About a third of Northeastern’s students on campus are international students.

Students, staff and faculty must perform once-per-week testing starting Sept. 6, provided they are on campus for a day or more. Those who are moving into campus housing must be tested on the day of arrival.

The hope is that the vaccines and testing measures together—along with daily check-ins from its community—can prevent outbreaks and potential spread. University officials say they will reassess the program in October.

Across the country

Northeastern, like many other institutions, is seeking to fully reopen in the fall and has lifted other restrictions including masks for vaccinated students. The university has more than 14,000 undergraduates, including nearly 50% who commute or live off-campus. It has conducted more than a million COVID tests over the past year, with 1,931 coming back positive, including 151 among faculty and staff members. It did an exceptional job in preventing spikes this year, with the largest one-day total hitting 33 in late March. Most days, numbers were in the single digits.

And yet, it believes its bustling downtown campus location with multiple subway stops and large numbers of students coming on- and off-campus is safest with that extra layer of protection in place.

Northeastern is not the only university with a vaccine requirement that is mandating testing in some form. Johns Hopkins University says vaccinated students must have tests done once per week, while at George Washington University all vaccinated students must be tested once per month. Columbia University in New York is requiring anyone coming to campus this fall to participate in its ongoing surveillance program, where all community members must be open to being randomly selected for testing. Duke University has the same policy in place for students.

It is unclear whether those universities or others that enacted vaccine mandates will further adjust those testing policies for the fall. Many institutions, like Morgan State University, have lifted their testing requirements for those who are fully vaccinated. Northeastern had also done that back in June before heeding to new public health guidance.