Northeastern to discontinue PCR testing at end of semester


Marta Hill

Students enter the Cabot Testing Center Feb. 18. Effective May 6, Northeastern will no longer offer PCR testing.

Marta Hill, editor-in-chief

Northeastern will announce Tuesday morning that it will no longer offer PCR COVID-19 testing on any campus, effective May 6. 

In a message to the university community, that The News obtained a copy of, Provost David Madigan and Chancellor Ken Henderson explained that the decision was made “in light of encouraging trends and forecasts.”

“On our Boston campus, University Health and Counseling Services (UHCS) will make home-use rapid antigen tests available for faculty, students and staff upon request and free of charge after PCR testing ceases,” the email reads. 

The email also cites the increased availability of COVID-19 testing across the United States, Canada and the U.K., as well as the development of new treatment therapies and the effectiveness of vaccination as factors influencing the decision.

This year the university has moved away from tracking positive case counts as an indicator of the state of the pandemic, focusing more on severe illness and hospitalization.

“Immunization is considered the first line of prevention against serious illness from COVID-19. Our vaccination and booster requirement remains critical to protecting our campus community,”  the email reads. “As always, we are prepared to adapt our approach as needed, keeping the health and wellness of our community foremost in our decision making.”

This announcement comes a month and a half after the university discontinued mandatory testing for asymptomatic students and a month after the indoor mask mandate was lifted.

It also comes as Boston is seeing a rise in COVID-19 levels in wastewater — the numbers are back to measurements from early February. That said, levels are still significantly lower than at the peak of the Omicron surge. Davidson Hamer, a Boston University School of Public Health infectious diseases specialist, told the Boston Herald that though the trend upwards is slow, it is still “worrisome.”

The history of Northeastern’s COVID-19 testing 

Northeastern first detailed its testing plans in early June 2020 — at that point the university said students, faculty and staff would be “required to undergo viral testing regularly.” 

Testing in Cabot began Aug. 17, 2020 according to The News’ COVID-19 testing data dashboard, as campus began reopening for the fall 2020 semester. Students on campus were required to test the first, third and fifth day after arrival. After that, for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year, on-campus students were required to test every three days

For the fall 2020 semester, running Sept. 3 through Dec. 19, 2020, Northeastern averaged about 4,400 tests and six positives per day, according to data collected by The News from Northeastern’s testing dashboard. Spring saw an increase in the number of positives, with an average of about 4,165 tests and nine positives per day reported from Jan. 19 through May 1, 2021. Toward the end of that semester, Northeastern hit 1 million COVID-19 tests processed at Northeastern’s Life Sciences Testing Center. 

Testing continued over the summer, at much lower levels. This fall brought students back to campus, and with them more positive COVID-19 tests. The testing cadence changed to weekly and, as a result, total testing numbers fell. From Sept. 8 to Dec. 8, 2021, the Boston campus averaged about 4,020 tests and a little over 13 positive results per day.

The first half of this semester saw both the lowest average number of tests and the highest average number of positive results — from Jan. 18 through Feb. 26 (the last day data was reported), NU averaged about 3,490 tests and almost 90 positives per day. 

Since Northeastern began reporting COVID-19 testing numbers, The News has been tracking the data in our COVID-19 Testing Data Dashboard. The daily data, including wellness housing numbers and testing breakdowns, for both academic years is recorded in this spreadsheet and in the online dashboard, shown below.