June 14, 2020

Research lab ramp-up plan & real-world tips to lower COVID-19 risk

Research lab ramp-up plan & real-world tips to lower COVID-19 risk

My lab and I are fortunate that in our Sacramento-Davis area there are relatively few COVID-19 cases, but what kind of COVID-19 risk mitigation plan should one use for a careful lab ramp-up plan?

COVID-19 shouldn’t be the “elephant in the lab”, but should be discussed openly. Communication is probably one key to optimal ramp-up.

A COVID-19 lab ramp-up plan quick intro

While no one-size-fits-all plan is going to work for every lab and institutional guidelines are going to vary (sometimes dramatically), I thought I’d share the plan I’ve come up with as an example that others might find useful as a starting point or from which you might borrow a few useful elements. Note that some institutions are not allowing ramp-up yet.

In this post, I also include some key not-entirely-answered questions. If you have ideas for answers to these I’d love to hear them. Some difficult everyday issues remain somewhat unresolved.

So, at the same time, this post is meant to start a discussion. I’d value hearing from others who are putting together such plans if they have additional ideas and suggestions. Also, what have been your experiences ramping up, especially for the situations that are on the tricky side.

Here’s the working plan I’ve come up with for slowly and carefully ramping up my lab’s research in coming weeks and months. We’ve been using it for about a month.

In some cases, I’ve also included our experiences so far. Note that our plan was inspired by others too and institutional suggestions. Here are the latest UC Davis guidelines. It also had to be approved by UC Davis before we began ramping up.

No haz-mat suits required.

Research lab ramp-up plan & real-world tips to lower COVID-19 risk
No hazmat suit required during COVID-19 ramp-up for most labs. Web photo labeled for re-use.

Our general lab ramp-up plan

  • Knoepfler lab researchers will only come into work during this phase if they are comfortable with the safety precautions implemented by the lab.
  • Lab members should give feedback to the PI in real-time on ramp-up issues.
  • We’ll keep personnel numbers in the lab low during ramp-up. Our general plan given our lab space is to have 3 people per shift and no more than 4 on rare occasions. The TC room, a separate self-enclosed room, can accommodate only 1 person working with cells at a time, and that will be strictly enforced.
  • We have already implemented a Knoepfler Lab on-line calendar where we will coordinate schedules to maintain less than 1 person/250 sq. feet. The calendar works well. We’ve also suggested on our research floor that shared equipment have online sign-ups.
  • We will use the same calendar to log actual hours in the lab for each person for potential contact tracing should someone end up with COVID-19. So far no one has gotten ill, but it’s good to have this info just in case.
  • Masks should be used at all times while in the lab to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19 through droplets. The use of gloves and goggles is strongly encouraged.
  • Researchers will stay at least 6 feet away from each other, even though also wearing masks. More distance equals less risk, but not zero.
  • No one should come in if they are feeling ill. Let the PI know right away if you are feeling sick.
  • Only essential work that has to be done in the lab should be completed in the lab. Other activities like data analysis, online meetings, etc. should generally be done at home if possible.
  • I have set up a Slack account for our lab, which we have been using for real-time lab communication on-line. This has worked very well and will be used for coordinating specific equipment use. I highly recommend using Slack even outside the scope of COVID-19 responses.
  • Everyone will wash hands with soap as well as clean benches and all shared workspaces, equipment, computers, doorknobs, etc. with alcohol before and after use.
  • We will avoid the break room area and not each lunch there or in the hospital cafeteria. An alternative is to go outside of the building where there are some green spaces, or eat in your car, if you drive to work.
  • These rules are mandatory for Knoepfler lab members and non-compliance will be taken seriously.

Some challenges during lab ramp-up

Now, I’ve got some questions that we haven’t quite figured out answers for so if you have bright ideas let us know in the comments or contact me by email.

  • Elevator questions. How to push the buttons? Tissue? Elbows? Feet (via some kind of yoga-like move?) Just use your hand and then sanitize? How many people should use a standard elevator at one time? Just one? More? What about if the door opens and one or more people are already on the elevator? You wait for the next one? Even more complicated — what if you’re on the elevator and before you arrive at your destination the door opens and several people start to come on and you feel there isn’t enough space?
  • Food conundrums. Where are researchers supposed to eat? It seems like break rooms are kind of off-limits for sitting and eating, although this varies by institution. The weather is starting to warm up here in Sacramento so eating outside could be tricky on some days. Plus, even if the weather cooperates, where outside do you eat? In your car? What if you don’t drive? Even if you don’t sit in the break room, can you use the microwave?
  • Foggy glasses. Wearing a mask tends to lead to glasses fogging up at times. Any ideas to deal with this issue?
  • Bathroom. Is sitting on the toilet an issue for potentially getting virus on your skin? I don’t think so. What if people come in the bathroom without masks while you’re there?
  • Non-compliers in the building. We’ve sometimes come across people in the building who are not wearing masks. Others are wearing the mask over their mouths, but not noses. Fortunately, this is rare, but what do you do? Nothing? Say something nicely?  Not so nicely?

Looking ahead

Again, please comment on your experiences and ideas to address the above questions, new ideas for safety planning, and more.

Looking ahead, I also wonder if some of these pandemic ramp-up measures could end up being used long-term.

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