Two Massachusetts institutions, Northeastern and Boston universities, are planning to periodically test students for the coronavirus this fall even if they are fully vaccinated.
The universities are requiring on-campus students and employees to be tested for the coronavirus upon their arrival and regularly thereafter. Northeastern said it will reevaluate its policy in October.
Although the pandemic has eased in the U.S., case counts are climbing once again and outbreaks are sweeping across some pockets of the country with low vaccination rates.
As many colleges prepare to relax safety measures and resume more in-person classes in the fall, Northeastern and Boston universities offer an example of institutions keeping stringent testing policies.
Northeastern announced this week it will require weekly testing for on-campus students and employees. Boston University is doing the same for students and employees who interact with students in person.
Their plans come as some public health experts warn that coronavirus cases could rise again in the fall and winter, and as government officials urge people in the U.S. to get vaccinated as the more contagious delta variant spreads.
Still, Northeastern and Boston’s testing strategy goes further than what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends.
In June, the CDC updated guidance for higher education institutions, saying that colleges with fully vaccinated populations can largely resume in-person activities. It also advised that fully vaccinated individuals do not need to be tested for the coronavirus unless they are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.
However, schools where not everyone has gotten the shots should continue using prevention strategies such as regular testing and mask-wearing, the agency said.
Leana Wen, a health policy professor at George Washington University, said more CDC guidance is needed on vaccinated students.
“What we really need to know is whether an asymptomatic, vaccinated (person) who tests positive is able to infect other people,” Wen said in an email. “If they can, testing is important; if not, then there’s no point.”
Although it’s not what the CDC recommends, the Boston institutions’ approach could provide information about how many vaccinated students are catching the virus and whether they are transmitting that infection to others, said Audrey Pettifor, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Pettifor said an aggressive testing program could also make sense if campuses have large populations of students who’ve received vaccines that aren’t made with messenger RNA technology, which is used in both Moderna’s and Pfizer’s vaccines.
Recent studies have found Moderna and Pfizer shots still offer protection against coronavirus mutations, but concerns are growing that some other vaccines — including those from Chinese-makers Sinopharm and Sinovac — aren’t as effective against the delta variant and will require a booster shot.
Northeastern is mandating the shot for on-campus students. Officials there noted that students are coming to campus from around the world, where coronavirus case counts and vaccination rates differ widely. Several countries from which the U.S. draws large shares of international students, including India and South Korea, have populations where less than a quarter of the population is fully vaccinated.
The university is recognizing any vaccine approved by the World Health Organization, but students who’ve gotten other types of shots will have to be reinoculated, it said.
“Our North Star is safety,” Ken Henderson, chancellor and senior vice president for learning at Northeastern, said in a statement. “By doing testing, we will gather information in order to make the best science-based decisions we can.”
Boston University is taking a similar approach to coronavirus testing in the fall. And while it is also mandating the shots, it is accepting any coronavirus vaccine for students, even those without WHO approval.