Skip to search Skip to main content

May 7, 2020

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

 

NOTE: This plan relates to research activities only. It is in addition to any procedures implemented by Texas A&M University or The Texas A&M University System for the phased return of personnel, including those in high risk categories; it does NOT supersede these. The System has issued guidance that, in the earliest group of returning employees, “no employee should be required to work on-site if they have valid health concerns until we can evaluate the results of expanding the number of employees working on-site.”

As the state of Texas begins to reopen under Governor Abbott’s orders GA-18, GA-19, and GA-20, Texas A&M University and System leadership will evaluate and communicate plans to resume various operations and functions. The paramount principle is the health and safety of our communities, especially of vulnerable individuals. As outlined by state and federal officials, we will take a phased approach to reopening. The goal of this communication is to outline the steps for resuming research activities and provide guidance to researchers who will be expected to create specific plans for their activities and personnel. Additional updates, resources and FAQs will be posted at https://vpr.tamu.edu/covid-19. Please be aware that if there is a significant increase in infections, it may be necessary to return quickly to essential research activities only, or even to more restricted operations.

As preparation for and resumption of research activities are commenced, protective measures will remain essential. These include

  • Maintain social distancing at all times.

  • Maintain good personal hygiene, including proper hand washing, cough/sneeze etiquette, avoid touching your face, eyes, nose and mouth.

  • Have hand sanitizer available at all building entrances and at access points for each floor.

  • Use appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to protect oneself and others from the spread of the virus while within the labs as well as within the research building.

  • Clean/disinfect high-touch locations in shared spaces, including laboratories.

  • Self-screen before coming to campus for new or worsening signs or symptoms of possible COVID-19. Do not come to work if ill or exhibiting signs or symptoms of COVID-19.

The first three of these protective measures should be matters of habit for all by now; we will elaborate on the rest below.

The research activities deemed essential at present range from maintenance of equipment, to maintenance and/or propagation of living organisms, to active COVID-19 research. Increasing the level of research beyond essential activity depends on

  • Access to an adequate and reliable supply of appropriate PPE, including any that may already be required by IACUC or biosafety protocols.

  • Recalibration or certification of certain equipment, particularly related to safety, before resumption of use.

  • Access to necessary research supplies and materials, including ordering, shipping, receiving, and delivery to normal building delivery locations.

  • Access to supplies of research animals, including necessary animal care activities.

In addition to potential supply chain issues, all of these activities are dependent on availability of staff at the department, college, and university levels. Therefore, the expansion of research activities beyond the present level must be connected to the presence of support staff on campus necessary to support research operations. The target date for expanding research activities beyond current “essential” levels is June 1, 2020. Preparatory activities such as lab cleaning, instrument activation/calibration, supply ordering, etc., may commence on May 18, 2020. However, all conditions applying to research activities after June 1 also apply to preparatory activities. No new research should be initiated before June 1.

Access to and protocols for use of shared resources such as libraries, computing facilities, core facilities, etc. will be determined by the management of each facility.

Mandatory hygiene procedures for all research locations/personnel include

  • All personnel should wear face coverings (i.e., use of a material to cover the nose and mouth) in shared spaces, including laboratories.

  • Cleaning of all door and cabinet handles, bench surfaces, keyboards, instrument control panels, etc. at the beginning and end of the day, or, if researchers are working in shifts, at the beginning and end of every shift.

  • All shared equipment, including computer keyboards and tables should have user interface surfaces cleaned between every user.

  • Other “high touch” items such as hand tools, micro-pipettors, faucet handles, chemical and spray bottles, chair backs and arm rests, pens and whiteboard markers should be cleaned between users.

  • Cleaning should be with an EPA-approved disinfectant that is effective against COVID-19 in addition to the other biohazardous agents that may be in use. A list can be found at https://www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/list-n-disinfectants-use-against-sars-cov-2

  • Pay attention to disinfectant contact times; most disinfectants do not work on contact

  • Use appropriate PPE when using disinfectants/cleaning, including eye protection and chemical compatible impervious gloves.

We are working to acquire an adequate supply of disposable surgical masks for TAMU researchers for the first month of research activities. We anticipate that these will be made available to departments for distribution during the week of May 18.

Under no circumstances should anyone come to work when ill or exhibiting any known symptoms of COVID-19. Individual units may implement screening procedures, including measurement of individual’s temperatures, or other wellness checks, as they see fit. Instructions for responding to confirmed or suspected cases of Covid-19 may be found at https://employees.tamu.edu/covid-19/faqs/ and the form for reporting is available at https://tx.ag/tMiCfbR.

Any individual who feels that they are being asked to carry out unsafe activities or to work under conditions that are unsafe for themselves and others should discuss their concerns with their immediate supervisor or if necessary and appropriate with their unit head, the Office of Graduate and Professional Studies (ombuds@tamu.edu), or the Division of Research (vpr@tamu.edu). Ethics Point also may be used https://secure.ethicspoint.com/domain/media/en/gui/20488/index.html; however, please be aware that anonymous reports may make specific concerns more difficult to resolve.

For laboratory-based research, lab occupancy should be limited to those necessary to conduct the research. Social distancing may require significant revision of normal procedures. This may require reducing laboratory occupancy by

  • Continuing remote work to the extent possible for activities such as literature review, data analysis, and writing.

  • Establishing rotating shifts for lab members.

  • Reducing the number of researchers present per laboratory to 10 or less depending on the size of the lab. Maximum density should be kept to less than 1 person per 100 sq. ft., with no more than 1 person per laboratory bench, hood, glove box, biosafety cabinet, etc., at any time.

  • Establishing one-way flow through doorways, i.e., designate and label an entrance and exit door for each laboratory.

  • Posting schedules for the use of each laboratory space and/or piece of shared equipment, including names and contact information for all users. This includes facilities that are shared by multiple research groups. Sign-in sheets are recommended for any space or instrument with four or more users, and in any small research rooms accommodating only 1 person (<100 sq. ft.)

PIs are responsible for developing and implementing appropriate management plans for their laboratories and for training their personnel on appropriate cleaning and disinfecting, hand hygiene, and respiratory etiquette. For research not involving human subjects, these plans must be submitted to and approved in writing by the appropriate unit head (department head or director). Colleges may require review and approval of these plans. They may also implement access control and screening procedures for buildings and spaces within them under their control.

Researchers working with living organisms should continue to wear the appropriate PPE and observe the appropriate protocols for their research. It is recognized that some procedures, such as surgeries, may require multiple personnel to work in close proximity. Such activities should be carried out with the minimum number of personnel feasible and allowable. Activities that involve participation of other personnel, for example, animal care by Comparative Medicine Program (CMP) staff, should be organized such that the minimum number of people are present at any time. Any deviations from approved protocols must have prior approval by the cognizant body (IACUC, IRB, IBC, etc.).

All researchers should be cognizant of the fact that the infection and spread of COVID-19 in any facility on campus will likely require a return to essential activities only, or even greater restrictions depending on the location and circumstances. Therefore, orders for “perishable” materials, including animals, should be restricted to meeting the immediate needs of the research being conducted. Those who have frozen biological specimens should also consider the possible need to refreeze samples if it becomes necessary to reduce research activities again.

The operating principle as research activities are resumed initially for clinical/field/social science research involving human subjects or contact with the public is to limit the exposure of Texas A&M researchers to members of the external community in the course of their research activities. At present, University and System bans on travel and on visitors to campus remain in effect. Field activities in low density locations such as agricultural sites and nature areas have been permitted on a case-by-case basis as essential activities where their nature was seasonal and as long as social distancing requirements are met, including no more than one person per vehicle when traveling to field sites. These activities may be expanded to those that are not seasonal or time dependent, providing that interaction with members of the public is minimized and social distancing is maintained when traveling to/from and working at field sites.

Clinical and human subjects activities that require subjects to come to a Texas A&M facility may be resumed once the visitor ban is lifted and to the extent it is lifted. However, these will be subject to the following limitations

  • Subjects/patients in waiting areas must maintain social distancing. Masks should be issued to all in these areas.

  • All researchers and participants must certify that they are not currently experiencing any symptoms of illness now or within the past 14 days: they have not been ill, have not traveled in an area with a CDC Level 3 Travel warning, and have not had contact with a known or presumed COVID-19 patient.

  • Participants should be screened for risk factors for serious COVID-19 disease. If any are present, they should be made aware before deciding to participate.

  • Investigators must submit their standard operating procedures for addressing the requirements of re-opening research. The SOPs are to address all requirements as applicable to the research including screening, social distancing, maintaining personal hygiene, use of appropriate PPE, cleaning/disinfecting of shared spaces/equipment and infection control. These should be submitted through the unit head (department head or director) and dean to the vice president for research. They will be reviewed by an ad hoc committee with appropriate expertise. The committee will include a designated representative of the investigator’s college.

  • Each facility involved in conducting invasive procedures including venipuncture or use of oral devices with human subjects must have an approved infection control plan. These should be submitted through the unit head (department head or director) and dean to the vice president for research. They will be reviewed by an ad hoc committee with appropriate expertise. The committee will include a designated representative of the investigator’s college.