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COVID-19 Research Updates

Overarching Rationale

The School of Medicine is committed to keeping all of our faculty, staff, and students as safe as possible during the challenging times of COVID-19.  With the well-being and safety of all of our constituents coming as our number one priority, our number two priority is our clinical, educational, and research missions. The below specified re-entry processes have been developed collaboratively from dedicated working groups in an effort to allow for the phasing back in of many of our school’s activities.  We acknowledge that this process is subject to change on a daily basis and that plans to withdraw our constituents in the event of a resurgence are being developed.

As the state of Texas is re-opening for business, the University plans to restart its research activities. However, little will be the same as it was back in February. Transmissions of the Corona virus will continue, and it is projected that numbers of positive cases will increase across the US as the various state governments start to re-open their economies. 

If we want to minimize infections among our employees, we will have to abide by a set of stringent rules, using social distancing guidelines and PPE. Dr. Mark Barteau, Vice President of Research (VPR), has provided an update as we begin to re-enter research operations, starting June 1. This memo complements these guidelines.

Face mask supply for the first month will be provided by the VPR and distributed through the departments. Researchers may use their own face masks/covering. Department heads will make arrangements for continued supply of PPEs in the future. 

For employees

Before leaving for work each day, each employee will need to check your temperature. Employees will be directed to stay home if their temperature is 100.4 or higher. If an employee has any other symptoms of COVID-19, s/he should stay home and consult with their doctor.

Before entering a building, all employees will be directed to cover their nose/mouth with a mask/face covering.

Face coverings are to be used at all times in social distancing settings. If the use of face masks makes operation of instruments difficult (e.g. microscopes), or if a researcher works alone in a room, Principal Investigators (PIs) may submit a detailed procedural plan to the department head to request exemption for wearing face masks under the specific circumstances.

Employees will be directed to wash their hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and warm water. Gloves should generally be used for experimental research activities only. Dispose gloves properly.

For all purposes, employees will be directed to adhere to social distancing guidelines of at least a 6-ft radius. In large laboratories with multiple bays, one person per bay is generally permitted to work at any time. Very long bays/benches may accommodate two researchers at a given time. Each PI is responsible for finding suitable personnel density that meets the operational limitation of social distancing in a given lab space.

If an employee is using common equipment (e.g. centrifuges, mixers, measuring devices, microscopes etc.) or if s/he occupies a space shared with others, they will be instructed to wipe it clean with disinfectant (75% ethanol, or 10% bleach) after each use.

As in the past, employees will not allow others access to badge-only entrances. Employees will not bring their children to work (even if it is just to pick up an item or end/start an o/n experiment etc.).

If an employee needs to provide instructions to a colleague and are required to be closer than 6-ft, both employees must wear a mask/face covering. Avoid physical contact at all times.

Employees may remove their face mask/covering for eating and drinking individually at tables in designated areas.

For PIs

Research programs will be structured in shifts, especially if there is a large group that populates a dense space. If employees cannot safely adhere to the social distancing guidelines, then PIs will need to provide non-overlapping time slots for staff occupying adjacent work space.

If any employees belong to a high-risk group for COVID-19, PIs will need to provide specific times and appropriate work space/conditions for these individuals. In particular, employees might require a reduced work schedule and need alternate work sites to minimize their risks.

Lab meetings/journal clubs, etc. may either be conducted using Zoom or a combination of Zoom and in person meetings, if necessary and possible.

PIs may submit detailed implementation plans to their department heads to request exemptions from these guidelines. For example, they may inquire about researchers/staff being exempt of wearing face masks, if executing specific tasks impeded (i.e. microscopy work), or if working alone in a shared office. Any requests need to describe procedures outlining efforts to minimize risks of virus transmission.

Reporting incidents

We all will be facing a challenging time over the next several months. It is important for all of us to continue to provide a safe working environment for yourself and your colleagues.

If you observe individuals who fail to adhere to these new guidelines and policies, you should report such to your supervisor, your department head, or the Vice Dean for Research.

Please note that violations of these rules may lead to suspension of your access privileges to the research buildings.

Sent on behalf of Mark A. Barteau, Vice President for Research
April 2, 2020

On March 31, 2020, Governor Abbott issued Executive Order GA-14.

This order, which allows only essential services in the state, took effect at 12:01 AM on April 2, 2020, and will be in force for the remainder of April 2020. It defines “essential services” as those listed by the US Department of Homeland Security, Guidance on Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce, plus those approved by the Texas Department of Emergency Management.

With respect to research activities, the DHS Guidance exempts, as providing essential services “workers who perform critical clinical research, development, and testing needed for COVID-19 response.” However, guidelines summarize different critical infrastructure areas and provide latitude to define research-related activities in these as essential.

Texas A&M University, TEES, and AgriLife Research have created forms for you to identify essential personnel and request approval for essential research. These forms and approval routing instructions can be obtained at the following sites:

Thank you for the efforts that you have undertaken thus far as we transition our research activities and for your commitment to the well-being of our research community.