3/17/20 | Impact of COVID-19 on lab activity

Dear Research Community,

Research leadership at UT Health San Antonio is closely monitoring the status of the COVID-19 pandemic to keep everyone safe while limiting disruption to research activities.

All announcements regarding changes to the University’s operations can be found on the institutional coronavirus updates at https://www.uthscsa.edu/notices/coronavirus-update. This is an extremely fluid situation, so it is recommended that you check back often to stay current on the details. A compiled list of research-related information is available at https://www.uthscsa.edu/vpr. A new research-specific COVID-19 online resource is being developed to provide updated information to the research community.

Our research labs, including core facilities, are mission-critical and we strongly recommend that all PIs and directors of core facilities develop contingency plans anticipating a possible personnel reduction due to illness and/or partial or complete shutdown of the university. This note provides guidelines for members of the research community to navigate this challenging time and assist in emergency planning.

Planning scenarios:

A. Prioritize research functions:

  • Assess and prioritize critical laboratory activities that require regular attention by personnel (trainees, staff, and investigators). For example, cell cultures, animal studies, breeding programs, changing N2 tanks, etc.
  • Identify experiments that can be ramped down, curtailed or delayed; in particular, consider not initiating new long-term or large-scale experiments.
  • Remember to obtain regulatory approval (IACUC or IRB) if changes are made to protocols iacp@uthscsa.edu; for IRB protocols, please review the posted IRB guidance to determine how and when changes should be reported to IRB at http://research.uthscsa.edu/irb/COVID.pdf).
  • Consider “stockpiling” experiments that can be analyzed later, or freezing tissues or cell lines in favor of undertaking new studies.
  • Plan for alternatives if institutional cores or other shared services are not available (please contact Dr. Ramiro Ramirez-Solis/ramirezsolis@uthscsa.edu if you have any questions).

B. Lab supplies. Lab personnel (trainees, staff and investigators) should anticipate a shortage of lab supplies, including personal protective equipment (PPE), and should limit the number of personnel entering lab areas or conducting experiments that require PPE (masks, gowns, face shields, etc.).  As the University works through meeting the PPE needs of the clinical and research missions, there may be circumstances in which PPE is made available only by request. Each school is implementing a point of contact for this purpose, please contact your Dean’s Office for guidance.

C. Social distancing is an effective measure to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. It is strongly recommended that all non-essential meetings be conducted online rather than face-to-face. 

D. Reduce the density of lab personnel (trainees, staff, and investigators):

  • Consider alternating shifts or workdays.
  • If possible, increase space between individuals at benches (6 feet apart).
  • Carry out “desk functions” such as data entry, ordering, writing, etc. from home to reduce the time required in the laboratory.

E. Employ environmental controls in the lab:

  • Regularly disinfect surfaces, handles of refrigerators/freezers, and other objects that are touched by multiple individuals.
  • Consider impacts on neighboring laboratories in open-lab settings (e.g. STRF).
  • Keep hand sanitizer available and soap containers filled.
  • Secure all high-risk materials (chemicals, biohazard and radioactive).

F. Update emergency contact information and critical personnel designations:

  • Ensure that emergency contact information is current at the lab, department and school levels.
  • Update contact information for freezers; liquid nitrogen containers and other essential pieces of equipment.
  • Request that laboratory personnel shares contact information with each other.
  • Establish a communication plan (via email, group texts, go-to-meeting, etc.).
  • Cross-train personnel on critical functions.

Consider:

  1. What would you do if your group or department were quarantined or unable to come to work? Arrange help from other lab groups (separated enough not to be affected by a quarantine), who could help maintain critical operations.
  2. Plan for a scenario in which only one person per day is allowed to complete the essential activities for your laboratory (e.g., animal monitoring, cell culture maintenance, or equipment maintenance). Consider using a Google calendar to organize and communicate schedules.

G. Remote access

  • Ensure that personnel who will work from home have the hardware, internet and access to information, analysis software and video conferencing software.
  • Test remote work technologies. Consider if a VPN is required.
  • Ensure access to copies of data without taking primary data home (i.e. box, lab archives.
  • In all cases, we urge you to prioritize the safety of yourselves, your lab group members (trainees, staff and investigators), and the broader community. For any questions or concerns, please contact the Office of the Vice President for Research at VPR@uthscsa.edu.
Article Categories: Research, Timely Updates