05/05/20 | Guidelines for Resuming Research Operations at UT Health San Antonio

The UT Health San Antonio research community is to make a phased return-to-campus plan starting May 7, 2020, while ensuring safety and maintaining public health requirements. Please keep in mind that ramping up research does not mean all resources and labs will be fully operational immediately. Additional comments from the VPR’s Office:

Several Working Groups are in action to support operational continuity and develop specific guidelines and recommendations on sanitizing protocols, testing and screening protocols, PPE needs, etc. Details on these guidelines will be provided in separate communications and can be found on the COVID-19 site at uthealthsa.org/coronavirus.

All investigators should continue to follow the CDC guidelines to protect the health and safety of our workforce and trainees. Universal masking and social distancing (6 ft) will continue to be enforced throughout our campuses.

Research lab meetings and research activities that have successfully and productively transitioned to being conducted remotely, should continue virtually until further notice.

Clinical research must use additional mitigation procedures as defined below (see guiding principle #2)

The following guidelines may not apply to persons currently identified as high risk by the CDC. Special provisions may be applicable to individuals at higher risk of infection. Please contact your supervisor and Strategic Human Resources (HR) Partner to discuss options.

The institution will remain fully compliant with future guidelines from County and State health officials. Guidance changes will be promptly communicated.

All personnel who test or have tested positive for COVID-19 at an outside facility are required to have a physical examination by a Wellness 360 healthcare provider or their primary healthcare provider before returning to work. Written documentation of the visit is required.  These individuals must make an appointment with Wellness 360 to discuss by calling 210-567-2788. If you have experienced symptoms consistent with COVID-19, please inform Wellness 360.

Guiding Principles

The following guiding principles address specific issues that may impact our efforts to ramp up research.

1. Laboratory Research Must Coordinate with Animal Facilities

DLAR personnel will continue to operate on a split shift schedule to limit exposure and protect our workforce.

Several research lab team members have been trained by DLAR to provide basic animal care in the event of self-isolation/quarantine of the DLAR workforce. Please contact Dr. Sander Hacker in DLAR (HackerS@uthscsa.edu) if your lab team would like to be added to a volunteer list to help provide animal care. “On-the-job” training will be available if/when these volunteers are called on to assist.

Current DLAR PPE stockpile is sufficient for approximately four weeks. DLAR PPE access will remain strictly controlled and the current limit of one box of each PPE item (exam gloves, surgical masks, hair bonnet, disposable gown) per room will continue until further notice.

Previous restrictions on animal orders have been lifted. However, new animal orders and expansion of breeding colonies still require coordination with DLAR personnel and will be handled as follows:

  1. Investigators should email the protocol number to be activated to Dr. Mark Nijland (Nijland@uthscsa.edu).
  2. Each protocol number will be added to a whitelist of “approved to order” studies by Dr. Nijland.
  3. Dr. Hacker will contact the animal care supervisors at the destination facility to communicate on incoming animals and to receive feedback on workload or other service issues.
  4. Dr. Hacker will reply to investigators to confirm the activation/approval of animal protocols/orders.

2. Resumption of Non-Therapeutic Human Research

Study activity for non-therapeutic human research involving direct contact with participants can resume based on the following factors:

  1. Until otherwise directed, PPE requests for research activities must be submitted through a PPE supply request form.
  2. Accessibility of non-healthcare workers (i.e. research team and participants) to the research performance site(s) including availability of temperature screening checkpoints/procedures (see additional guidance below).
  3. All research activities must adhere to sanitation guidelines posted at all research facilities.
  4. Implementation of non-contact screening 24 hours before all in-person research visits to assess for active symptoms related to COVID-19. This may be accomplished by communication with participants, care providers, screening surveys, or other options. Individuals with active symptoms should not be seen in person and should be referred for medical care (exception are granted only to COVID-related research subjects).
  5. Participants to be seen on-campus should be masked and screened prior to entrance to the building. Family members should be discouraged from accompanying the participant to in-person visit unless absolutely necessary (e.g., children participating in research). In these cases, the person accompanying the participants must also be screened as above.
  6. If in-person visits are required, continue to reduce exposure risk by adhering to the following guidelines as closely as possible:
      • Maintain social distancing (6 feet or more).
      • Reduce the number of people in a room to no more than three at a time.
      • Minimize the number of staff who have “hands-on” contact with study participants.
      • Wear personnel protective equipment (PPE) including gloves, masks and gowns. Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) is available to consult on these determinations.
      • Wash your hands thoroughly before and after contact with participants.
      • Sanitize surfaces and equipment in the location of the visit before and after each participant visit with recommended products (see below “Housekeeping/cleaning”).
      • If research involves clinical space, all UT Health Physicians policies and procedures related to the use of such space must be followed and study staff must coordinate visits with these areas prior to scheduling all in-person visits and associated clinical activities.

If possible, study teams should continue to consider alternatives to direct contact with participants (e.g., telephone follow-up, Epic video visits, or web-based electronic data collection).

For sponsored clinical trials, resumption of in-person sponsor study monitoring can resume after the applicable performance site (e.g., Mays CC, UHS, VA) lifts current restrictions on non-patient visitation.

3. PPE/Masking for All Research Personnel

Universal masking is required. Cloth masks will be distributed to faculty and staff to cover their face but are not intended for use in lab/clinical research settings that require droplet or respiratory protection. For research activities that did not require any type of respiratory protection prior to the COVID-19 emergency, the cloth mask is suitable.

Return to campus should not be initiated without cloth masks. Masks are being distributed on a rolling basis. For questions please contact the respective POC for your department/institute or School.

4. Social Distancing in Research Labs

Currently, several labs at are operating at a minimal level to complete critical research or to perform COVID-19-related research. Any new activity must be phased in gradually to ensure staff health and safety and promote physical distancing between people while they work at the bench.

Labs on main campus: Lab personnel must wear a mask and maintain a distance of 6 feet from other people in each lab room at any time. If lab space does not allow the maintenance of social distance, faculty, staff and trainees will need to operate in shifts.

Open labs (STRF, GCCRI, etc.): maintain a distance of 6 ft from other people at each lab bench.

Use of shared equipment room, cell culture space, or animal rooms should be coordinated to avoid overlap in scheduling and maintain social distance.

Undergraduate and high-school students or volunteers will not be allowed in laboratories until further notice.

Surveillance on personnel density or social distancing and protective measures (e.g., lack of masking, wearing gloves outside of labs, etc.) will be accomplished via random inspections. Please report any violation to your respective chair/dean.

We understand that the above directives do not fit all circumstances. The intent of this document is to provide general guidelines to safeguard the health of the research community.

5. Screening upon Entry will be Maintained

Universal symptom and temperature screening will be carried out at the points of entrance of each building. All individuals will be asked questions about COVID-19 related symptoms, possible exposure to the virus, and will have a body temperature check. Symptomatic employees will be referred to a Wellness 360 healthcare provider for a physical examination.

6. Testing

PCR testing for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 will be available only to symptomatic individuals. Serologic testing for neutralizing antibodies is not yet available.

Symptomatic employees awaiting test results should remain at home on sick leave until results are known.

7. Housekeeping/cleaning

In addition to normally scheduled housekeeping services, Facility Management (FM) will follow CDC recommendations to enhance sanitizing protocols of common areas (such as lobbies, elevators, main entrance corridors, etc.).

It is the responsibility of each individual to sanitize his/her own workspace/office before leaving (including shared conference rooms). Researchers will be responsible for frequent wipe-down of high touch surfaces within their lab spaces with cleaners approved for this purpose. All surfaces shall be cleaned using EPA listed disinfectants from “List N” effective against SARS-CoV-2 virus (table can be found here). FM will provide instruction and materials, as needed, in the form of a “cleaning kit” including sanitizing spray, paper towels etc. For any questions, please contact CVSavitation@uthscsa.edu.

8. Childcare / Eldercare/ Immunocompromised Status

To ensure proper support, leaders and supervisors of employees who are managing for personal circumstances (childcare constraints, caring for elderly relatives, immunocompromised status, etc.) should engage their Strategic HR Partner (HRPartners@uthscsa.edu) how to best manage for these circumstances.

Employees who have expressed concerns of immunocompromise or other health ailments should not be questioned on any medical diagnosis, but should be referred to speak with and provide HR with the necessary medical documentation. A licensed physician will make the decision in a de-identified manner of what constitutes medically immunocompromised status and accommodation needs.

Per UT System policy, individuals who cannot work from home but are under mandatory quarantine should use available leave benefit resources.

Please consult with your Strategic HR Partner to discuss available options and resources. Important information is also provided on the Human Resources Continuity page.

9. Anxiety management

The health and well-being for our workforce is vital and UT Health has a variety of options to help. For support, please refer to HR, Office for Faculty, Employee Assistance Program (EAP), and each respective School’s Student Affairs. A comprehensive guide has been compiled for faculty, staff and students to help and provide useful resources during the pandemic. Please find the document at COVID-19 Resource Support Guide.

Anxiety over returning to campus is understandable and UT Health has developed many supporting resources and tools to manage it. If, however, you are not finding what you need, please connect with your Department Chair or your Strategic HR Partner for additional consultation.

10. Research Trainees

Research trainees should consult with their respective research mentors and/or supervising professors regarding the implementation and conduct of research activities. In all instances, research-related activities and access must comply with institutional safety guidelines (e.g., screening, social distancing, universal masking, sanitizing) as outlined above.

See what to expect when you return to campus

Article Categories: Return to Campus Plan