Dear Brown Community Members,
We are writing with important health and safety information and updates regarding the start of the Spring 2022 semester. We do so in the context of the ongoing rise in COVID-19 infections in Rhode Island and on campus due to the Omicron variant. While the rise in reported cases will require a number of changes in our COVID-19 strategy and approach in the coming weeks, we are guided by scientific consensus on the effectiveness of high vaccination rates and mask wearing. While we may need to make temporary modifications from time to time based on current conditions, there will not be any significant changes to University operations or activities. This includes maintaining current policies for visitors and guests and travel. We are announcing, and describe in greater detail below, the following:
- Important changes to asymptomatic testing and testing requirements on campus
- Changes to isolation policy for all students and employees, and isolation protocols for students
- Updates to masking requirements, distribution of high-quality KN95 masks and guidance for replacing cloth masks
- Academic planning and continuity
- Guidance for providing flexibility for staff related to COVID-19 family care commitments
As we communicated to the campus on Dec. 21, vaccinations plus boosters are very effective at preventing Omicron infections from developing into serious illness. In addition, the emerging scientific evidence indicates that Omicron presents a less serious risk for individuals, and given how widespread it has become, may represent an inflection point in the pandemic as society transitions to managing COVID as we do influenza and other serious respiratory viruses — exercising caution, minimizing contact with others when sick, and taking care of ourselves and others. The health protocols the University already has in place — requiring vaccinations and boosters for all members of our community unless an exemption is granted, maintaining an indoor mask mandate and following other public health measures — are highly effective at preventing serious illness from Omicron, which health experts have identified as a primary goal.
As we also communicated last month and we all know from our collective experience of the past several weeks, Omicron is highly transmissible and, like other respiratory viruses, very difficult to contain. Although reported Omicron cases are rising substantially locally and nationwide, our experience on campus and in New England is that for vaccinated and boosted people, the most common presentation continues to be mild symptoms or no symptoms at all. Accordingly, our focus will shift this semester from counting positive test results as an indicator of campus safety to actions that will further reduce the risk of serious illness and hospitalization while maintaining our mission of teaching and research as a residential academic community. We are confident in the Brown community’s collective ability to do so.
CHANGES IN ASYMPTOMATIC TESTING AND UPDATED TESTING REQUIREMENTS
We will end optional PCR testing for vaccinated community members on Friday, Jan. 14, and beginning on Monday, Jan. 17, make rapid antigen test kits and packs of KN95 masks available to all Brown students, faculty (including postdocs) and staff. Employees and students with approved exemptions from COVID-19 vaccination will continue to be required to PCR test twice a week as they currently do, and they will receive further direct communication later this week.
Since June 2020, the University has maintained an on-campus routine testing program utilizing PCR testing for asymptomatic people, which has been largely optional for vaccinated community members since early October. While that program has served the campus well, it is clear from emerging data that PCR tests are no longer the best available tool to reduce the risk of poor health outcomes from COVID-19 in a largely vaccinated and boosted population such as ours.
PCR tests are designed to detect fragments of viral RNA, and while they are highly effective at doing so, they cannot determine who is actively infected and contagious; who might have transient colonization that never turns into an infection; or who might have been infected and recovered weeks ago. A PCR positive test result for any member of our community on any given date could potentially mean they were infectious many weeks or even months earlier, and does little to help us reduce the risk of serious illness on campus now.
Rapid antigen tests answer the most important question in the Omicron era: “Am I infectious now?” They do so by detecting proteins from the virus that causes COVID-19. While no test is perfect, a positive rapid test result means that the person is very likely infectious at that point and must take steps to isolate themselves from others.
More information about the logistics of testing starting Jan. 17 will be available on the Testing and Tracing pages of the Healthy Brown website, but here are the basics you need to know now:
- Friday, Jan. 14, is the final day any vaccinated asymptomatic community member can schedule an optional PCR test through Verily.
- Starting on Monday, Jan. 17, rapid antigen test kits and KN95 masks will be available to Brown community members (undergraduate, graduate and medical students, and faculty and staff) for pickup at the Alumnae Hall and One Davol Test Kit Pickup Sites (you must have your Brown ID card with you; operating hours can be found on the pick-up sites page of Healthy Brown). The test kits are similar to the at-home tests many of you have likely used in recent weeks and include simple instructions on how to test yourself as needed. Initial distribution will be determined based on supply, and we will send an additional notice over the weekend to advise community members regarding how many tests they can pick up starting Monday. We will monitor conditions and distribute additional tests if necessary.
- Undergraduate students are required to take two rapid antigen tests upon return to campus (re-entry test requirement) and then to take two rapid antigen tests every week (weekly testing requirement) until health conditions reflect it is no longer necessary.
- Re-entry test requirement: Take one test on the first day you return to campus or the first day tests are available to you if you are already here (day 1) and the second test two days later (day 3).
- Weekly testing requirement: Take two rapid antigen tests each week, at least 24 hours apart. Undergraduates will be reminded to take their tests weekly and to report that they have done so.
- As a reminder, undergraduate students are also required to take a COVID-19 test at home or wherever they may be two (2) days prior to returning to campus. Students who receive a negative result may return to campus as scheduled; students who receive a positive result must isolate at home and upload positive test results to the Health and Wellness Patient Portal using your Brown username and password. Students will be notified with authorization to return to campus.
- All students (undergraduate, graduate and medical) are required to report any positive test result to University Health Services via the Health and Wellness Patient Portal using your Brown username and password. Follow-up instructions from University Health Services will be provided to students. Those experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or other respiratory illness should stay home from class and other activities and contact University Health Services as they normally do, and University Health Services will continue conducting symptomatic testing of student patients as they determine is clinically necessary.
- For faculty, staff, graduate students and medical students: As has been the case with PCR testing since October, asymptomatic testing remains optional for fully vaccinated graduate and medical students and faculty and staff. We encourage you to pick up rapid antigen test kits and KN95 masks starting Monday, and use an antigen test if you are experiencing symptoms, concerned about a potential exposure, preparing to attend a large event, or for other reasons at your discretion.
Faculty and staff with any positive test result are advised to contact their primary care provider and must report their positive test result to University Human Resources for follow-up instructions (send those results or a picture of your at-home test to firstname.lastname@example.org). Employees experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or other respiratory illness must stay home and consult with their primary care provider.
- Testing of any type is not a substitute for monitoring and paying attention to the onset and development of symptoms. All Brown community members must stay home from work, class and/or other University events and functions if they are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.
- The COVID-19 dashboard will stop being updated after the final day of PCR testing (Jan. 14). Because of the decreased efficacy of the dashboard as a measure of COVID-19 prevalence on campus with shifts in testing and infections, University Health Services and University Human Resources will be collecting information on self-reported positive test results, and the University will share that and other campus public health conditions information with the community through reinstated weekly Today@Brown COVID-19 updates.
Brown has updated its isolation policy in light of recent guidance from the Rhode Island Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The University now requires that community members who test positive for COVID-19 self-isolate for a period of five (5) days. The 5-day period applies regardless of previous infection, vaccination or booster status, and the presence or absence of symptoms.
- To calculate your 5-day isolation period, day 0 is your first day of symptoms OR your asymptomatic positive test date (whichever is earlier).
- Day 1 is the first full day after your symptoms developed or positive test result.
- On day 5 you can take a rapid antigen test and if the result is negative and you have no symptoms or improving symptoms, you are released from isolation.
- If the day 5 test is positive, you must continue to isolate until you have a negative result on a rapid test AND have no or improving symptoms OR reach day 10 (whichever is sooner).
- If you are able to end isolation on day 5, it is important to wear a well-fitting mask around others for 5 additional days, even at home.
ISOLATION PROTOCOLS FOR STUDENTS
Given the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant, we know that we will experience periods of significant test positivity in our student community over the coming weeks. Our primary focus, especially during surges in cases, will be on supporting students who test positive and experience significant illness. We also will work to provide all students who report positive test results with basic support as needed.
Where students who test positive isolate will depend on their current living arrangements.
- Undergraduates students who test positive and live on campus in private bedrooms (i.e., a single room, a single within a suite, or as the sole occupant of a double room) will isolate in their residence hall room, as will students who live in shared bedrooms and have roommates who have also tested positive.
- For students who test positive and share a bedroom with a student who tests negative, designated isolation housing (i.e. dorm rooms set aside by the University or in a hotel) will be a primary option. In these cases, University Health Services will prioritize designated isolation housing based on a number of factors including the severity of symptoms and the ability to move roommates who test negative to alternative housing options.
- Students who test positive and wish to leave campus to isolate will be able to do so only if they can use a private vehicle to leave campus and travel to their isolation location.
- Undergraduate, graduate and medical school students who live off campus and test positive will continue to be expected to isolate at their off-campus residence.
The transmissibility of Omicron underscores the importance of high-quality masks worn correctly. The KN95 masks we will be distributing again starting Monday at the testing sites meet these criteria, and all members of the community should wear KN95 masks (or KF94 masks) or disposable/surgical masks while on-campus. Cloth masks generally do not provide adequate protection unless they are paired with a surgical mask.
Mask fit is important and highly individualized, and we understand that the masks we can procure and provide will not be a perfect fit for every member of the community. An excellent resource for information about types and sources of masks is the Project N95 nonprofit organization.
Mask wearing remains one of the simplest and most effective ways to protect ourselves and others from virus spread, and mask wearing indoors continues to be required in all Brown University buildings. All members of the community must review and adhere rigorously to the mask wearing requirements, which have been updated this week. We ask that you redouble your efforts to comply with masking requirements, particularly in spaces where students gather less formally for academic work and recreation. These include the University Library, Stephen Robert ‘62 Campus Center, Dining Services, and the Nelson Fitness Center. This is for your safety as well as for that of the employees who provide services in these facilities. Please be respectful of and cooperate with faculty in classrooms, and with staff in these and other settings.
Mask wearing requirements also apply to all visitors and guests as described in our Visitor & Guests Policy. No changes are being made to that policy at this time and visitors and guests continue to be allowed on-campus.
ACADEMIC PLANNING AND CONTINUITY
We continue to believe that in-person instruction is safe, given our highly vaccinated population and compliance with the requirement for wearing masks in academic and other buildings. Our experience during the fall semester — and the experiences of other universities in recent weeks — suggests that the risk of transmission in classroom settings is low. We therefore will adhere to the plan that was communicated before the Winter Break to resume undergraduate and graduate classes in-person on Jan. 26.
We also recognize, of course, that there will be circumstances in which it may be difficult for individual instructors and/or students to participate in-person: instructors or students may become ill or need to isolate following a positive test result or may have increased caregiving responsibilities at home. Provost Richard M. Locke is asking all instructors to take steps to ensure that students are able to access course materials online (for example, through Zoom recordings posted on Canvas or lecture capture if your course is scheduled in a room with that capability) during the early weeks of the semester. More detailed information, including sources of support, will be forthcoming from the provost by the end of this week.
FLEXIBILITY FOR STAFF
As noted in our Dec. 21 communication, we continue to see disruptions to individual schedules, especially for employees with children. Supervisors have been directed to provide increased flexibility for hybrid and on-site employees to work from home throughout January, when possible, in circumstances where they have to care for family related to COVID-19. University Human Resources has provided additional guidance to HR Business Partners (HRBPs) to disseminate to supervisors and managers in their areas. If you are unsure what to do with regard to an employee under your supervision, please be in touch with the HRBP for your area. Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Sarah Latham is working with senior officers to ensure contingency plans are in place for critical functions to continue in the event of increased absenteeism due to Omicron.
PATIENCE AND UNDERSTANDING
Significant levels of Omicron transmission will correspond with the opening of the spring semester and will require all of us to be flexible as we manage and prioritize support for students with serious illness. We expect the current Omicron rates in Rhode Island to peak later this month and decline rapidly in early February. As always, we will continually assess public health conditions on and around campus and make adjustments as necessary.
We are confident regarding the health and safety measures in place on campus, though the next several weeks will nevertheless be challenging. We strongly urge all members of the Brown community to practice patience and understanding with each other and especially with the staff across the University who will be working diligently to support all of us during this time.
Russell C. Carey
Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy
Eric S. Estes
Vice President for Campus Life