The leaders of Northeastern University are ending the school’s on-campus isolation housing program, saying it’s time to rethink COVID-19 and how to manage it.
“We need to figure out how to live with it and not how to hide from it,” said Michael Armini, senior vice president of external affairs for Northeastern University, and co-chair of the school's COVID-19 task force.
Last semester, when a student tested positive for COVID-19, they would move into a separate dormitory and recover away from roommates and friends. But this year, Northeastern is instructing students to self-isolate inside dorms and apartments alongside roommates — a decision that has made many students uncomfortable and concerned for their health.
Armini said the school is moving away from isolation housing because of the protection offered by vaccinations and boosters.
“I think people have to change their thinking from 2020 and get into 2022, where everyone’s vaccinated and boosted on campus,” he said.
All Northeastern students and staff must show proof of full vaccination and a COVID-19 booster by Jan. 18.
But some undergraduates living in the dormitories are concerned about the change, pointing to mounting evidence that vaccines are less effective at preventing infection against the highly contagious omicron variant, though they remain protective against severe illness.
“I'm scared to go use my kitchen,” said Jacob Barrett, a fourth-year communications and business major. “I have a communal apartment with three other people, and I'm scared to go into my kitchen because I don’t want to get [COVID-19].”
Barrett is a member of ResLife, the staff of residential assistants that manages and mentors dormitories full of younger students. The residential assistants, or RAs, are required to conduct periodic room checks, mediate interpersonal conflict between dorm residents, and provide in-person programming to facilitate student bonding.
Barrett said students are not required to share a positive coronavirus test with building staff due to health privacy protections.
“How do we know that when we are going to check on a room or check something, what's the guarantee that the resident doesn't have COVID?” Barrett said. “It’s just very scary to me.”
Northeastern first-year student Ashley DiLorenzo said she is trying to understand the rationale behind the university’s move to end isolation housing, but she has unanswered questions about distancing protocols.
“Dorm rooms are so small. I understand you wear masks while you're in your room, but are you going to wear a mask to sleep? Because those beds, I don't know if they're 6 feet apart,” DiLorenzo said.
DiLorenzo worries about exposure and transmission in communal bathrooms, tightly packed dorm rooms and dining halls. She said there's no way to know if the 18-year-old at the neighboring table is skirting self-isolation.
“I think that for people living in such close quarters, as almost all of the freshmen right now, it is pretty irresponsible and very scary for those of us who are going to have to deal with it,” DiLorenzo said.
According to Northeastern University spokeswoman Renata Nyul, the school will be distributing KN95 masks to residential assistants and their supervisors today and tomorrow. Health experts have advised using these higher-quality masks to protect against the omicron variant.
Across town, Boston University told GBH News it will continue to offer isolation housing for students, and provide a one-month free supply of KN95 masks to all community students and staff who want them.
Cassandra Pierre, epidemiologist and medical director of public health programs at Boston Medical Center, said she is glad to see Boston University taking serious precautions against the omicron variant. She shares Northeastern students’ concerns about the end of an isolation housing option.
“As much as people like to talk about omicron like it’s [a cold], that’s simply not the case,” Pierre said.
She said the Northeastern’s vaccine and booster mandates are important and effective.
“However, not everyone in the orbit of the students in their networks and their social networks, and where the orbit of faculty and their social networks have had all of their vaccines,” she said.
As of fall 2020, about two-thirds of Northeastern’s over 15,000 undergraduate students live off-campus, with many moving to nearby neighborhoods of Roxbury, Mission Hill, and Jamaica Plain.
Pierre said the student diaspora to surrounding neighborhoods, plus the existence of immunocompromised students who are still vulnerable to the virus, creates an uneven playing field of protection. She wants to live without fear of COVID-19 too, but said the eventual downturn of this current surge does not necessarily signal the end of the pandemic.
“We were kind of hoping after delta that we would enter a relative period of stability where individuals who are highly vaccinated, we can escape even having to worry about infection and interruptions of work in school. And that did not happen.”