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COVID-19: Research Continuity

Over the coming days and weeks there is a potential for the COVID-19 pandemic to affect research on the UC Merced campus. Some areas that may be affected are disruptions to the supply chain with limited campus delivery and a slowdown of the production of reagents and consumables internationally. Travel for academic conferences, workshops and field activities have been and will continue to be impacted. With these considerations, we have identified a series of issues for your consideration and recommendations for preparedness in research laboratories. As this is a fluid situation, these recommendations will be continually updated as quickly as possible as new information is available.

While this guidance attempts to address a variety of circumstances, all faculty and researchers should discuss contingency plans with their Deans and Department Chairs, as well as with students and staff under their supervision to ensure research continuity. Should there be disruptions to operations, the University may have limited ability to assist with research continuity issues. Researchers should be prepared for a partial or total cessation of all laboratory based research. Please review the guidance below on Laboratory preparations.

It is our intent to provide researchers with access to their space until such a time as it is deemed to be unsafe or is prohibited by state or federal directives. As outlined in a directive from the UC Office of the President, in no event should researchers take reagents, chemicals, biologics or any other laboratory equipment or materials other than laptops, data storage devices, etc., offsite (e.g. to their homes) to ensure research continuity during a curtailment.

 

Immediate Measures to Reduce/Avoid Transmission

Ensure personnel are clear on roles, responsibilities, and personal health and safety. Make sure personnel are aware of health concerns, how you will operate with diminished personnel in your lab, as well as how you will allow personnel remote work opportunities, as your operation allows. This includes recommending all personnel who are feeling unwell, or are taking care of ill family members, to stay home until they no longer have symptoms, and recommend good hygiene practices. For more information on reducing transmission and keeping heathy please visit UC Merced COVID-19 on Protecting Yourself and Each Other.

 

Supply Chain

COVID-19 will likely have an effect on research related supplies even if the UC Merced campus is not directly impacted. Laboratories should consider stocking up on consumable supplies, particularly those with a long shelf life. Further, availability of supplies may lag during the resolution of a health crisis. Researchers should consider maintaining in their group’s supplies such as reagents and materials that can be safely stored long-term in order to assure availability for the duration of a period of disruption that could last weeks to months. Consult UCM EH&S for guidance on long term storage of reagents, chemicals, hazardous materials, etc. EH&S does not have space for storing these items for you, but they may be able to help you develop solutions to your storage needs.

Deliveries by Fed-Ex, UPS and other shipping companies may be limited by their access to campus as well as their ability to continue normal operations. The timeliness of orders may also be impacted as supplier and delivery companies may experience staffing challenges also. We recommend discussing alternative delivery locations with Shipping and Receiving and/or closely monitoring tracking information on orders and be in direct contact with the shipping company around alternative solutions.

 

Laboratory preparations in case of more widespread issues that result in a campus curtailment

If there are limited operations for an indefinite period of time, there may be a need to ramp down research activity in a way to preserve the integrity of data, make sure no harm is done to critical reagents and materials and equipment, and prepare for remote access to data. Accordingly, we recommend the following:

  • Ensure protocols for remote access to data. IT services may be limited, so for those who will need to have remote access to campus servers and other resources, protocols should be tested ahead of time.
  • Explore and implement measures to reduce density and allow “social distancing” of lab/research personnel. For example, increasing spacing between researchers where possible to >6 feet, having personnel come to the lab in shifts, allowing every other bench to be unoccupied. At this time, the Chancellor has prohibited undergraduates from accessing laboratory spaces until further notice.
  • Prepare freezers and key equipment to be on emergency back-up power. Please ensure that most essential equipment is on backup power. Work with building managers to ensure backup power is available for critical laboratory equipment. Consider remote sensing devices for critical laboratory equipment with alarms.
  • Have a plan for maintaining liquid nitrogen dewars and gas supplies. Consider developing a building or departmental plan for topping off liquid nitrogen dewars and replacing/stocking backup gas tanks. We recommend that dewars remain topped off throughout the coming weeks in preparation.
  • Identify procedures and processes that require regular personnel attention. Establish a realistic plan for critical experiments and equipment that would be vulnerable to a long-term curtailment of operations and require daily or weekly interventions. Consider coordinating with colleagues who have similar research activities to identify ways to ensure mutual support and coverage of critical activities.
  • Designate two key personnel in a research group for maintaining critical experiments, equipment and processes that require regular personnel attention. Ideally, these individuals could address critical operations together to maximize safety. If campus access is limited, designated individuals could be granted access to campus. This access may be granted to perform critical tasks around long-term experiments, preservation of reagents and critical equipment, such as those identified above.
  • Groups using animal facilities should be in communication with animal care staff. Although we anticipate animal facilities will maintain continual operations, laboratories should review existing protocols and coordinate with facility staff.
  • EH&S and other emergency services will maintain operations, but plan now. EH&S staff, like any of our campus community, could be affected by illness or other challenges as a result of operational/changes in communities, such as local schools closing. Communicate with EH&S personnel about any concerns about safety issues around lab curtailments.
  • Cross-train research staff to substitute for others who may be out sick or unable to come to work. Ensure staff have the appropriate, up-to-date training to carry out work in areas that are outside the norm.
  • Document critical step-by-step instructions for laboratory procedures. Encourage all researchers to be familiar with each other’s work if an absence would threaten the loss of experiments (for example, which cells need transferring to new media.)
  • Increase disinfecting of laboratory and communal spaces , including lab benches and chairs, equipment, common rooms. Facilities Services will be increasing service to labs and public spaces now that most classes are transitioning to remote learning. To assist Facilities Services in their work, tidy up laboratory spaces and inventory and label dangerous reagents and sensitive instrumentation for which services staff should steer clear.
  • Review and test contingency plans and emergency procedures with researchers and staff.

Important considerations for lab work, as well as human and animal subjects research, should be included in contingency plans which focus on maintaining a safe distance between people, identifying which processes can be accomplished utilizing technology such as online video/teleconferencing, as an alternative to reduce nonessential in-person interactions. ORED will be providing specific guidance on human and animal subjects research during this time. Identify and consider your ability to work with limited quantities (or completely without) common perishable items, such as dry ice, liquid nitrogen and various gas cylinders.

  • Prioritize. Depending upon the nature of your research, prioritize work that can only be carried out in your research facility, and put off work amenable to remote support, such as data analysis. Stockpiling results and data now that could be analyzed remotely in the future is a potential option that might create future flexibility.
  • Research safety. Safety is critical, and with the potential for unexpected absences, it is important that research activities be left in a safe state daily. Experiments should be left each day in a stable mode such that they do not present any biological, chemical or physical hazards in case of a prolonged absence. Further, experiments must incorporate “fail-safe” measures; that is, in the event that a member of the research team is not able to return to the lab the next day, or if there is a failure of air supply, cooling, power, water supply, vacuum or other connection, the experiment should not create hazardous conditions. Outside of active experiments, biological, chemical and radiological materials and equipment must be secured in a safe manner. Physically hazardous equipment (cryogenic, heated, pressurized, under vacuum, etc.) similarly must be maintained in a safe state. We recommend not initiating any long term, complex experiments at this time, and the ramping down of any currently ongoing experiments.

 

International Research and Travel

Research in foreign locations should be paused to due current travel restrictions. All proposed travel to high-risk countries, including those with a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Warning Level 3 (widespread community transmission) or Level 2 (sustained community transmission), must have prior approval from Risk Services and the Provost’s office before making travel arrangements. Please consult UC President Napolitano’s most recent travel directive for more information.

As of March 12, 2020, The university has curtailed all non-essential domestic or international travel until further notice. If you must travel, please register all University related business travel with UC Away, which allows the University to provide aid to you if something were to happen to you or within your destination country, regardless of nature, and the UC will work to get you back to the U.S. at no cost to you. If travel reservations were using the University Connexxus Travel program trip registration in UC Away is automatic.

 

Field Work

Consider delaying all fieldwork involving contacts with multiple people ( e.g., any field work in towns, cities and other high population density areas, visits to archives, libraries, museums, public exhibits, art galleries, any in-person polling of the public).

Work should be suspended in localities that have declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19 community spread (for domestic field work) and to international destinations that have CDC warning level of 2 or higher.

Field work in remote locations with no/limited contact with local population should be allowed to proceed forward with proper review of travel plans. Whenever possible, travel by vehicles (cars, trucks, vans) should be encouraged over travel by public transportation (air, train, bus). Maintain social distancing behaviors during the extent feasible during travel.

 

Campus Visits

As of March 12, 2020, all non-essential visits to campus by visitors, including visiting scholars, from Level 3 or Level 2 countries are postponed until further notice. Please work with the UC Merced Office of International Affairs and your School administration to inform impending visitors of this information.

Campus visits and gatherings have been limited. Please consult the campus COVID-19 Guidance on Campus Visits and Gatherings.

 

Human and Animal Subjects Research

Please consult the Guidance documents below for guidance from the IRB and IACUC offices with regard to human and animal subjects research. IRB and IACUC offices continue to operate normally.

COVID-19 Humans Subjects Research Guidance

COVID-19 Animal Subjects Research Guidance

 

Sponsored Projects and Funding Agencies

The Sponsored Projects Office continues to operate normally. We have posted SPO COVID-19 Guidance that has information on federal COVID-19 research funding opportunities, as well as emerging guidance on managing existing federal awards (currently NIH and NSF).

 

Library Resources and Support

Although UC Merced Kolligian Library Building is closed to the public until the end of the COVID-19 emergency, the Library is actively providing services to faculty, students, and staff who are working or learning remotely. Read this informative letter regarding the resources and support available.

 

ORED Research Business Continuity

Please consult the guidance provide by ORED on Research Continuity for more information on Animal and Core Facilities.

Information on the Vernal Pools can be found on the Vernal Pools COVID-19 Guidance webpage.

Information on the Yosemite and Sequoia Field Stations can be found on the SNRS COVID-19 Guidance webpage.

 

Ensure that you are tracking of all of your extraordinary expenses associated the impacts of the COVID 19 outbreak in the event that we can recover a portion of those expenses through emergency funding or insurance.

This is a fluid and dynamic situation with information changing almost hourly. We ask for your patience as we attempt to keep you update on the newest and most accurate information as soon as possible.

For question or concerns that are not addressed here, please contact AVC Deborah Motton at dmotton@ucmerced.edu.