What does the rise of the Omicron variant mean for Northeastern, Boston as a whole? 


Samantha Barry

Northeastern’s most recent testing data reveals 80 positive cases of COVID-19, with 35 recent cases identified as Omicron.

Rachel Umansky-Castro, news correspondent

Just as a sense of normalcy was approaching, the Omicron variant is raising concerns across the world. It appears that post-COVID days will have to wait.

Omicron has many mutations that may make vaccines less effective against it than other variants, according to the New York Times. This sparked questions in the minds of students and faculty across Northeastern. Will quarantine return? What precautions should be taken to prevent the variant from spreading? 

Albert Bourla, the chairman and chief executive officer at Pfizer, said in a press release that “ensuring as many people as possible are fully vaccinated with the first two dose series and a booster remains the best course of action to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

First-year Explore Program student Melissa Rejuan said that she does not always feel safe outside of campus, even though people are vaccinated.

“[I don’t necessarily feel safe] because none of the mask mandates have really changed. Well, on campus it is really safe at Northeastern but outside of campus, not really,” Rejuan said.

According to the City of Boston’s mask mandate FAQ page, the mandate only applies to indoor areas, not private homes or outdoors.

 NPR reveals that this variant can be easily spread as it may be more contagious than the Delta variant. Only two weeks have passed since the first sighting of the Omicon variant and now it has been found in 25 states. Recent data states that in comparison to Delta, Omicron is twice as transmissible. Therefore, within another month, half of COVID-19 cases may be a result of the Omicon variant. 

In order to promote student safety on campus, Chancellor and Senior Vice President for Learning Ken Henderson sent an email Dec. 9 announcing that Northeastern would require everyone within the community to get the booster shot by no later than Jan. 18, 2022, or seven days after becoming eligible. However, a New York Times article stated that “scientists do not yet know whether vaccines will continue to protect people from Omicron.” 

On Dec. 17, Henderson disclosed in an email that the increase in cases on campus, primarily in the student population, includes cases of the Omicron variant. Therefore, Northeastern recommends that nonessential social gatherings and events be postponed or moved outside if possible. “While athletic events will proceed as scheduled, beginning this Sunday, December 19, they will do so without spectators in the stands.”

Caitlyn Jarvis, a communications postdoctoral teaching assistant at Northeastern, had some suggestions for the university in addressing Omicron.

“In addition to weekly testing and mask mandates, which I think the Northeastern community has done an excellent job of following, I’d also like us to be more cognizant of contact tracing to ensure that we are always containing the spread,” Jarvis said.

Even though Northeastern students were required to be fully vaccinated to return to campus this fall, not everyone has the booster yet, which worries some students. 

“Everyone is fairly vaccinated, but there is a slight concern,” Rejuan said. She personally heard that there have been more COVID-19 cases recently on campus. 

On Dec. 4, the first Omicron case was found in Boston near Middlesex County. . 

According to The News’ COVID-19 dashboard, the number of daily positives has seen a steep rise over the last few days. The most recent data represents the highest number of identified cases this semester, with 80 positive cases out of the 4,099 tests administered Dec. 15. 35 cases have been identified as Omicron since Northeastern started testing for variants Sept. 1, 2021. 

Jarvis believes that the university should adjust its current mask protocol. 

“As we know COVID-19 can spread through close contact, I do think it is important for faculty, staff and students to wear masks outdoors if they are in close proximity with others,” Jarvis said. “For example, if you’re attending a sporting event outside or a concert, where you will likely be seated in a large crowd for one, two, or even three hours, it is still important to recognize the risks of spreading COVID and respond appropriately.”

The Northeastern community is immersed in the city of Boston. Jarvis brings forth concerns that students may come into contact with individuals who may not be fully vaccinated in the city, which brings higher risks for students on campus. 

“During the fall semester, I ventured out to Salem for the Halloween festivities. It was very crowded, with long lines of visitors. I was shocked that no one was wearing a mask in public, even when outside. Even if you feel safe outside without a mask on, it’s important to recognize when others might feel more vulnerable,” Jarvis said.

Even outside of Boston, Northeastern students worry that the Omicron variant could impact their studies. Students within the Global Quest Program to London, where students spend the second semester abroad while taking classes at New College of the Humanities, are questioning the safety of their travels for the spring semester.

Students are still scheduled to arrive in London Jan. 3, 2022. However, as the Omicron variant begins to appear in London, some students feel it might not be the best decision to travel. Global Quest students were still required to move out of their residence halls by Dec. 17. 

“I’m worried about the new variant, but I also do not have many options to choose from, so I am still going abroad,” said Katelyn Liu, a Global Quest student and a first-year combined major in business administration and psychology major. “I’m getting the booster shot, which makes me feel a little safer, but I am still worried about contracting the new variant.”

Jeff Sullivan, United Kingdom and Ireland adviser for Northeastern’s Office of Global Experiences, said during the pre-orientation Zoom meeting that “you will likely not have COVID-19 testing weekly like here in Boston, rather on a case-by-case basis.” 

Sullivan said that the housing in London, Chapter Spitafields, has dedicated studio rooms for quarantine and support for students who test positive.

When asked whether or not students will be sent back to the United States if COVID-19 cases rise due to the Omicron variant, Global Quest leaders said that everything will be planned accordingly. However, as of right now, there is no announced backup plan. As of Dec. 18, Northeastern is continuing weekly testing of students on its Boston campus, moving forward with the booster mandate and maintaining the indoor mask mandate, all efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19, including the Omicron variant.