Emerson to require boosters, additional testing for spring semester

By Vivi Smilgius

Emerson will require all community members to receive a COVID-19 booster shot prior to the spring semester amid a drastic rise in COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts following the Thanksgiving holiday, college officials announced Wednesday. 

The decision follows a rise in COVID-19 cases and the detection of the Omicron variant in Massachusetts, renewing concerns about “breakthrough cases” infecting vaccinated individuals. On Wednesday, the state reported 5,403 new cases of the virus, 12 deaths, and 1,204 hospitalizations. Those figures represent the highest statewide totals since last winter—when almost none of the state’s residents had received a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

In light of the ever-changing landscape of the pandemic, Associate Vice President for Campus Life Erik Muurisepp, who serves as Emerson’s “COVID Lead,” said the college will continue to follow the guidance of medical professionals as new information is released. 

He also said the detection of the Omicron variant in the state on Saturday “certainly helped” college officials reach the decision to require boosters.

“We’ve seen and we know the benefit of the vaccines,” Muurisepp said. “With a 97 percent vaccination rate on campus, we knew the booster would only help, and we really felt it was important to not just strongly recommend but to require the booster to help keep the community safe.”

The mandate extends to students, faculty, and staff on the Boston campus as well as Emerson’s Los Angeles and Kasteel Well campuses. 

Emerson joins the University of Massachusetts Amherst in requiring boosters, as other schools around the area have yet to announce decisions despite requiring vaccination ahead of the fall semester.

All Emerson community members who received their second dose of the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines more than six months ago are now eligible to receive boosters under state and federal guidelines. Those who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are eligible two months after their first shot. 

Muurisepp said the college will also require students to test twice within a week of their return to campus in the spring, in an effort to “identify and isolate potential positives” and rebuild the “Emerson bubble” for the new term.

“Knowing the incubation period of the virus and doing multiple tests within a seven-day period really helps identify any potential viruses that may not show up on day one,” he said. “If we do a test on day one and it’s negative, let’s do another test three to five days later and make sure it’s still negative.”

Emerson will not require students to get tested prior to their return, though Muurisepp recommended it in his college-wide email Wednesday afternoon.

In regards to the spring semester, Muurisepp said while the relatively high number of positive COVID-19 tests Emerson has racked up throughout the fall semester are “unfortunate,” the college remains “well within operational parameters.” He added that the college’s current plans will likely continue into the spring and does not see a need for new restrictions.

“We know we want to get to a point where we can increase the access to campus for guests and visitors,” he said.  “That is a high priority for us. We just need to make sure we’re doing it at the right time and with the right parameters.” 

He acknowledged that while he understands students are tired of the restrictions— particularly the college’s mask mandate— they must remain in place for the safety of the Emerson community, adding that the college is following the city of Boston’s lead.

“As long as the city’s indoor mask requirement is still in place, we’re going to keep our masking requirements,” he said. 

Muurisepp commended the college’s COVID-19 response thus far, saying the campus has done a “tremendous job.”

“I’d be wrong to not acknowledge how everyone has helped us get to this point and has put in tremendous effort as a community because we’re all tired,” he said. “Folks want things to go back to how they used to be, in terms of not having to test and not having to wear masks and all that, but we have to just stay the course for now.”

As news of the booster requirements spread around campus, students seemed willing to continue doing their part to keep the college safe, either having already gotten a booster shot or having them scheduled.

First-year visual and media arts major Bella Pitaniello said she wasn’t able to schedule a booster shot in Boston, but plans to get one as soon as she can.

“I’ve tried and every place is booked for appointments,” she said. “But I do feel if you’re vaccinated, and it’s been six months, you should get a booster. I’m going to get one when I can.”

Fellow first-year visual and media arts major Annie Latka agreed, adding that she worries about getting a booster—especially in time for the spring semester—since getting her initial doses in August. 

“I have to wait until January or February to get my booster,” she said. “I’ll probably try to get it in December before we come back so I’m in compliance with the college.” 

Like Latka and Pitaniello, first-year Herman Hurston felt students should get their boosters as soon as possible, commending the college’s decision to require boosters.

“I don’t see why anyone would be complaining besides small things like [allergies to the vaccine],” Hurston said. “I respect Emerson’s decision as a whole to try to find some way to protect their students with their requirements.”

Frankie Rowley contributed reporting.