Testing, Exposure, and Isolation

As COVID-19 cases fluctuate in our community, locally and nationally, Harvard University Health Services (HUHS) has updated our policies in response to and with guidance from the CDC and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. If there are additional recommendations, we will continue to monitor and update this page as needed.

Review the procedures and resources below to help keep Harvard healthy.

Reporting a COVID-positive case

Next Steps After Reporting a Positive Test Result Through Crimson Clear

If you test positive on an antigen test or PCR test through your healthcare provider or local pharmacy, you should report your positive result to HUHS through Crimson Clear. HUHS’ contact tracing team will contact you via your Harvard email about what it means to be positive and explain next steps, including isolation and notifying your close contacts

After HUHS’ initial outreach with you, HUHS will notify:

  • School/Unit emergency leads, including College housing (if applicable)
  • Campus Services, including emergency management, environmental health and safety, security, facilities management, and dining services

These two groups, in partnership with HUHS, will work together to mobilize local support. They will take great care to ensure your privacy while supporting your isolation and, if you’re living on campus, caring for you during the isolation period.

Once the positive case is reported into Crimson Clear, HUHS' COVID response team will:

  1. Send you an intake email containing your isolation requirements and resources to your Harvard email within 24 hours of reporting your positive case. The email will include contact information if you have questions or concerns and an email template to notify your close contacts
  2. Ask you to identify and notify your close contacts from your infectious time period (48 hours prior to your test kit activation date). See the “Notifying close contacts” section below.
  3. Provide education and support to you as needed while you are isolating
  4. Ensure your confidentiality
  5. Email you at the end of your isolation to discharge you and provide you with return to work/school clearance and instructions

Learn more about isolation requirements.

Isolation requirements

If you test positive for COVID-19 and report a positive outside test result through Crimson Clear, HUHS will contact you about your isolation requirements via your Harvard email. See the “isolation protocols” section below for more information.

If you live on campus, your School will also provide direction on your local school/unit’s isolation procedures. After you receive your positive test result, it’s incredibly important to minimize your movement and exposure to others by returning or staying home and wearing a well-fitting mask at all times if in the presence of other community members.

If you live off campus and receive a positive test result, do not come to campus for any reason. If you receive a positive result while you are on campus for the day, you should gather your belongings and go home immediately to isolate. You should inform anyone needing to know (e.g., supervisor). An HUHS contact tracer will contact you via your Harvard email about next steps and will clear you to come to campus after your isolation period has ended.

See the “Isolation protocols” section below for more information.

Notifying close contacts

Once COVID-positive individuals have begun isolation, the next step is to identify and notify close contacts as soon as possible. It is vital for the health of others that close contacts are made aware of their exposure so they can take steps to test, mask, and monitor for symptoms.

Think back to your infectious period: This is considered the 48 hours prior to your test kit activation date. A close contact is someone who was within 6 feet of you indoors for 15 minutes or more during a 24-hour period. If they don’t meet all these criteria, they are not considered a close contact and you do not need to notify them.

If they do meet all the criteria, they are a true close contact. You should notify them of their exposure. Close contacts should review the exposure guidance and quarantine requirements and follow the applicable guidance to help decrease the risk of spreading COVID-19.

Learn more about exposure guidance

Isolation protocols

Isolation lasts a minimum of 5 days but might be longer depending on the specifics of your case. You cannot end your isolation without confirmation from an HUHS contact tracer. An HUHS contact tracer will be in contact via your Harvard email with additional guidance.

If you’re in isolation, you need to limit contact with others and stay home (or go to isolation housing, if applicable) until HUHS releases you.

If you have no symptoms or your symptoms are resolving and you have been fever-free for more than 24 hours, HUHS will discharge you from isolation on day 6. For the continued safety of the community, you must wear a mask at all times until day 11. During this period of strict masking, ensure a tight fitting mask when leaving your home or interacting with others; this means no dining with others and no other mask-free activities. Masks are critical in reducing the spread of COVID-19. We encourage the use of high-quality disposable masks, worn in a way that minimizes air gaps around the edges. A surgical-style mask or a cup-style protective mask such as a KN-95, layered under a form-fitting fabric mask, can ensure good filtration as well as an effective seal. ASTM or FDA-accepted masks offer greater assurance of filtration quality.

  • If on day 5 or later you are still experiencing significant respiratory symptoms, you continue to have a fever, or any other symptoms have not improved, then you must continue to isolate and inform an HUHS contact tracer via email. 
  • If you are a member of Harvard’s health care or child care workforce and you test positive for COVID-19, you will not be able to return to your workplace until 5 days of isolation, resolving symptoms, plus a negative COVID-19 test result on day 5. Contact your manager or clinic director for more information.

If you live in a dormitory, during your isolation period, you’ll stay in your room for the duration of your isolation (with the exception of evacuating the building for a life-threatening emergency). If you live in a dormitory, you can go to your local dining hall, fully-masked, to pick up food and then promptly return back to your room. No eating with others until Day 11.

At the end of your isolation period, the HUHS contact tracing team will notify you and your School/Unit representative of your isolation end date and time. You should not complete any COVID testing (antigen or PCR) for approximately 90 days (unless otherwise directed by HUHS or your healthcare provider). 

Support services during isolation

Although you’ll be in isolation, you’re not alone. Harvard administrators have established a multi-layered system to support you.

  • Most symptoms of COVID-19 can be managed with Tylenol or Motrin, rest, and fluids, but some people experience severe symptoms. If you are experiencing severe symptoms (e.g., trouble breathing; persistent pain or pressure in the chest; new confusion; inability to wake or stay awake; or pale/gray/blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds depending on skin tone), call 9-1-1 or go to your nearest emergency room.
  • HUHS’s intake email includes resources on how to care for yourself.
  • If you live in a School-operated residence hall, you will receive guidance on dining services for your specific location.
  • For students: A School representative will contact you regarding academic support, the specifics for supporting your isolation period, and to address any other needed supports.
  • For faculty, staff, and researchers: Review Harvard HR’s Covid-19 policy on use of sick time and dependent care sick time. If you are able to teach or work, you will need to do so remotely. Leadership in your School or unit will follow up with you and discuss options.

For more information, review HUHS’s FAQs on Positive Test Results and Isolation.

Return to Work Testing Requirement for Healthcare Workers and Childcare Workers

Who is subject to Harvard’s return-to-work testing requirement?


This requirement aligns with the CDC and MDPH guidelines. It is in place for those who have tested positive for COVID-19 or have had potential exposure to COVID-19 and fall into one of the categories below:

  • Harvard’s health care workers (HCW) include:
    • All clinical and non-clinical individuals who work at Harvard University Health Services (HUHS)
    • Harvard Dental Clinic staff and employees
    • Harvard Dental School students (HSDM students doing clinical rotations may apply)
  • Harvard’s child care workers (CCW) include all staff and teachers at Harvard’s six (6) child care centers in Cambridge and Allston

I am in one of these categories and have tested positive. What’s next?
 

To do immediately: If you test positive, you will receive an initial intake email from HUHS contact tracing team. Please respond within 24 hours to the contact tracing team (contact_tracing_questions@huhs.harvard.edu), informing them of your HCW/CCW status.

After isolating for 5 full days, below are the opportunities to test to return to work via a PCR or antigen test.

  • Step 1: Test on day 5.
    • If the test result is negative, you can return to work on day 6, pending resolving symptoms and no fever for 24 hours. You must continue to follow strict mask-wearing, do not eat, travel, or socialize with others through day 10.
    • If your day 5 test result remains positive, you must continue to isolate and can retest on day 7.
  • Step 2: Test on day 6, 7, 8, and/or 9 (if applicable)
    • You are eligible to test daily after day 5 until day 10.
      • If the day 6-, 7-, 8-, or 9-day test come back negative, which ever day comes first, you can return to work the following day, pending resolving symptoms and no fever for 24 hours. Make sure to report your negative test per instructions below.
      • If your day 6-, 7-, 8-, or 9- test comes back positive, you must remain in isolation until the following day. Make sure to report your positive test per instructions below.

How do I receive clearance to return to work from HUHS?
 

All negative and positive test results for return-to-work testing must be communicated to the HUHS Contact Tracing team, unless otherwise noted above. For return-to-work test results, please call (617) 496-2288 to verbally communicate or email contact_tracing_questions@huhs.harvard.edu using subject line: Healthcare/childcare return-to-work test result. Contact tracing will work with you to determine your isolation end date and provide you discharge instructions.

Exposure guidance

After a potential exposure to COVID-19, determine if you meet all 4 criteria of a close contact:

  1. Exposed to someone confirmed to be infected, and
  2. Interaction was indoors, and
  3. Interaction was close—less than 6 feet away, and
  4. Interaction lasted at least 15 minutes over a 24-hour period

If you do not meet all 4 criteria, you are not considered a close contact. No further action is needed. You should continue to practice health and safety measures.

If you do meet all 4 criteria, you are considered a close contact.

Protocols for close contacts

Please do the following for the 10 days following your date of last exposure:

  • Wear a mask around others for the 10 days following exposure. Masks are critical in reducing the spread of COVID-19. We encourage the use of high-quality disposable masks, worn in a way that minimizes air gaps around the edges. A surgical-style mask or a cup-style protective mask such as a KN-95, layered under a form-fitting fabric mask, can ensure good filtration as well as an effective seal. ASTM or FDA-accepted masks offer greater assurance of filtration quality.
  • Test on day 1 and day 5 following the exposure using an antigen or PCR test.
  • Self-monitor for COVID symptoms. If you develop symptoms: isolate from others, get tested, and stay home while waiting for the test results.
    • If negative, you may move about campus without restrictions (with mask around others).
    • If positive, continue to isolate away from others and await next steps from contact tracing. If you test positive outside Harvard’s testing program, report your positive test through Crimson Clear.

Experiencing Symptoms

Experiencing Symptoms

What should I have with me in case I have to isolate with COVID-19?

If you have to isolate, it is recommended that you have the following items already in your room/apartment/home: 

  • A digital thermometer 
  • Face masks (3-ply surgical masks, for example) 
  • Hand sanitizer and tissues (2-3 boxes) 
  • Over-the counter medication (if you are able to take):  
    • For fever: Acetaminophen (Tylenol ®, Paracetamol ®, or Panadol ®). Ibuprofen (Motrin ® or Advil ®). 
    • Cough medicine: such as Guaifenesin (Robitussin ®) 
    • Throat lozenges: such as Cepacol ®, cough drops. 
    • For nasal congestion and stuffiness: Decongestant (such as Phenylephrine (Sudafed-PE ®), Nasal spray-Saline mist, Ocean ®). 
  • 5 days' worth of clean clothing and personal items: such as toothbrush, toothpaste, prescription medication (if applicable), clean sheets. Please note, when in isolation you are not able to do laundry. 
  • Optional: water bottles, and/or preferred electrolyte drinks, snacks.

What do I do if I'm experiencing COVID-19 symptoms?

We recommend that you stay in your housing/apartment/home and take an antigen test or see your healthcare provider or local pharmacy for a PCR test. If the test is positive, notify Crimson Clear.

Please visit https://www.mass.gov/info-details/find-a-covid-19-test or access an at-home rapid antigen test or PCR test and notify the Crimson Clear Team if you have a positive result.

If you are on the Harvard health plan you can also get 8 monthly antigen test kits for free from your insurance. Visit the Antigen Testing page for more information. 

What do I do if I'm experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and am scheduled for an appointment at HUHS?

Prior to your appointment at HUHS, please review the list of symptoms below. 

If you have any of these symptoms, or have tested positive for COVID within 10 days of your appointment, please call your provider's office before coming to HUHS. All routine healthcare appointments can be rescheduled to at least 11 days after a positive COVID test.

  • Cough
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fever greater than 100.4 degree F or feeling feverish / having chills
  • New fatigue
  • Muscle or body aches 
  • Abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • New headache
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Sore throat
  • New congestion

Main Number for HUHS - (617) 495-5711
Counseling and Mental Health Services (CAMHS) - (617) 495-2042
Behavioral Health - (617) 495-2323
Law School - (617) 495-4414
Medical Area - (617) 432-1370

Exposure

Am I at high risk for COVID-19?

The CDC has provided some additional guidance for individuals who may be considered high risk; please see the CDC guidance.  

If you are immunocompromised or at a high risk for complications, please contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible for close monitoring, and do not wait for symptoms to worsen.

If you are hospitalized or need to discuss medical treatment options beyond the standard Tylenol and Motrin, please contact the HUHS COVID Response team to update them on your status. 

My roommate/housemate just tested positive for COVID. What should I do?

  • Be sure both you and your infected roommate/housemate wear well-fitting masks. Monitor your symptoms and complete an antigen or PCR test. 
  • If symptom free: 
    • Wear a mask around others for 10 days, especially around eating/drinking.
    • Test with an antigen or PCR test on Day 1 and the morning of Day 5 of potential exposure.
    • If you develop symptoms of any type, complete an antigen test. If the antigen test is negative and you continue to have symptoms, stay home, wear a mask around others, and repeat the test 48 hours after the initial antigen test.  Contact your healthcare provider if symptoms worsen and antigen tests continue to be negative.

Positive Test Result & Isolation

Can I use an antigen test as confirmation of a COVID-positive test result?

An at-home antigen test is considered an acceptable confirmation of a positive test result. If you receive a positive test result on an antigen test, please report the result through Crimson Clear. You will be expected to follow isolation guidance and will hear from a member of the HUHS COVID response team to your Harvard email if your positive test result is within 10 days of reporting. 

I tested positive for COVID but have not heard from a HUHS contact tracer yet. Do I need to isolate-in-place?

Yes, please isolate-in-place until you hear from a HUHS contact tracer because it’s incredibly important to minimize your movement and exposure to others. HUHS will contact you via your Harvard email about what it means to be positive and explain next steps.  

I tested positive for COVID and I am concerned. When should I call HUHS for an appointment?

  • If you are having difficulty breathing that is more than a mild cough and/or congestion in your nose. 
  • If you are having chest pain or tightness in your chest when you breathe. 
  • If, despite taking fever reducers as directed, your fever returns for more than 2 days or remains above 102°F (or 38.8°C). 
  • If you have prolonged vomiting or diarrhea and feel faint or dizzy. 
  • If you are immunocompromised or at a high risk for complications, please contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible for close monitoring, and do not wait for symptoms to worsen.
  • If you are hospitalized or need to discuss medical treatment options beyond the standard Tylenol and Motrin, please contact the HUHS COVID Response Team to update them on your status. 

I tested positive but don’t have any symptoms. Do I still need to isolate in place?

If you have tested positive for COVID-19, you must isolate in place until you are contacted by our HUHS COVID response team with instructions. Please use Crimson Clear to report your positive test result, isolate immediately, and wait for HUHS' COVID response team to contact you via email.  

Per the University’s updated guideline from the CDC and Massachusetts Department of Public Health, infected individuals who have no symptoms or mild symptoms that are resolving with no fever may end strict isolation after 5 days. After your isolation period, you must always mask whenever you leave your home or are around others for 10 days from positivity date. This means that you should not dine with others unmasked and not attend any mask-free activities for at least 10 days. 

If I have only mild symptoms, I can leave isolation after 5 days if they've resolved. What are considered mild symptoms?

Mild symptoms are similar to that of a cold. If after 5 days you continue to have a fever or severe respiratory symptoms, continue to stay home until your fever resolves and your symptoms begin to improve. If you develop any symptoms after 5 days, report these through Crimson Clear.

I’ve tested positive for COVID and have a fever and a cough. What can I do to take care of myself while in isolation?

  • Drink plenty of fluids, like water and sports drinks, to prevent dehydration.
  • Take fever reducers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, as directed. You can alternate if fever returns. 
  • Take cough medicine after taking fluids. Liquid cough syrup may help coat your throat and relieve some of the soreness from coughing. 
  • If you already use an inhaler for asthma, it is okay to use it as you normally would. 

How high is too high for my fever? Who should I call if I have any concerns about my symptoms?

If despite taking fever reducers as directed, your fever returns for more than 2 days or remains above 102°F (or 38.8°C) please call HUHS at (617) 495-5711 for an appointment (or your care provider). 

Will someone from my School still reach out to me during my isolation for academic support?

Yes. For students: a School representative will contact you regarding academic support.

How will HUHS support me during my isolation-in-place?

Although you’ll be isolating in place, HUHS is here for you. Please see below on how to reach us.  If you need to access via TTY, dial (800) 439-0183. 

Medical issues - If you have any concerning symptoms such as elevated fever, shortness of breath, chest pain, difficulty breathing, feeling faint or dizzy, or vomiting, please call (617) 495-5711 to reach our Urgent Care Department or 24/7 Nurse Advice Line. They will provide further instructions for you to either present in-person or to go the nearest local hospital.  

Mental Health Issues - the CAMHS Cares Line is available 24/7 for all students who need emotional support by calling (617) 495-2042. This line should not be used for questions related to COVID symptoms or to make medical appointments. 

How will I be notified when my isolation has ended and how long should I be masking afterward?

You will be notified by the HUHS Contact Tracing Team when your isolation period has ended. Please check your Harvard email inbox for a message. 

Please continue to adhere to strict masking for 10 days (5 days past isolation period) while you are around others and continue to follow all Keep Harvard Healthy guidelines. 

If I am positive for COVID-19 and start to feel more severe symptoms, who should I call?

If you start to experience more severe COVID symptoms, you should call the Urgent Care Nurse Line at (617) 495-5711. This line is open 24 hours a day/7 days per week and they will direct you to come to Urgent Care in person or go to the Emergency Room for evaluation. More severe symptoms may include: 

  • Difficulty breathing (more than a mild cough or nasal congestion)
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Fever above 102°F (or 38.8°C) after 2 days despite continuously taking fever reducing medications
  • Prolonged diarrhea, vomiting, or feeling dizzy/faint

If you are experiencing any mental health concerns while in isolation, the CAMHS Cares Line is available 24/7 by calling (617) 495-2042. This line is for all students needing emotional support and should not be used for questions related to COVID symptoms or to make medical appointments. For these COVID-related issues, please utilize the Urgent Care Nurse Line. 

If you need to access via TTY, dial (800) 439-0183.

If you are immunocompromised or at a high risk for complications, please contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible for close monitoring, and do not wait for symptoms to worsen.

If you are hospitalized or need to discuss medical treatment options beyond the standard Tylenol and Motrin, please contact the HUHS COVID Response Team to update them on your status.

Can I take my regular medications if I have COVID-19?

Yes, it is okay to take your regular medication, especially medication you may already use for asthma. 

What kind of mask is recommended if I test positive for COVID?

Masks are critical in reducing the spread of COVID-19. We encourage the use of high-quality disposable masks, worn in a way that minimizes air gaps around the edges. A surgical-style mask or a cup-style protective mask such as a KN-95, layered under a form-fitting fabric mask, can ensure good filtration as well as an effective seal. ASTM or FDA-accepted masks offer greater assurance of filtration quality.

When I am isolated, could I visit with a friend, even if they also have COVID?

You should not socialize with visitors or invite them to your residence hall/into your housing during the isolation period. 

If you live on-campus and you’re required to isolate in your room/apartment, you’ll need to stay in your room/apartment for the duration of your isolation to minimize your movement and exposure to others. You are permitted to leave only to use the restroom, to pick up food from a dining hall, for urgent medical matters/appointments, or to evacuate for a life-threatening emergency. 

Do I need to test negative to leave isolation?

At this time, the general public does not require a negative test to leave isolation. A negative test result is required to return to work for childcare and healthcare providers. View the Return to Work Requirement.

Does a negative test during isolation (i.e., before Day 5) get you out of isolation?

No, you are required to isolate for at least 5 days, or until communicated by a HUHS contact tracer. Having an additional negative test prior to Day 5 of isolation does not enable you to end isolation early. 

After Isolation/Recovery Period

I have just finished my 5-day isolation period. When will I know that I’m safe to be around others after having tested positive?

Everyone, regardless of vaccination status, should stay home and isolate for 5 days. If you have no symptoms or your symptoms resolve after 5 days, you can leave your home once cleared by a HUHS contact tracer. After your isolation period, you must always mask whenever you leave your home or are around others for 10 days from positivity date. This means that you should not dine with others unmasked and not attend any mask-free activities for at least 10 days from testing positive.

If after 5 days of isolation, you continue to have a fever or severe respiratory symptoms, continue to isolate until your fever resolves and your symptoms improve. This means you may need to isolate for more than 5 days.