Research Laboratory Re-Entry Plan

This resource will be continuously updated as new information and effective COVID-19 treatment and prevention options emerge.

Harvard University Laboratory Reopening Planning Committee

May 14, 2020

This resource is meant to establish clear and consistent guiding principles for the conduct of research in the era of COVID-19, to define operational protocols and precautions that minimize risk of viral transmission in a laboratory/research environment, and to provide examples of how the physical and temporal space of laboratories might be organized to enact these protocols in accord with these principles.

This report draws on the collective wisdom of experts in epidemiology, virology, public health, and emergency preparedness, as well as highly experienced research investigators and senior research officers, heads of hospitals and research institutions, and research building operations and facilities managers. We have benchmarked and compared our plan with those of many of leading universities and hospitals in the U.S. and our plan is in line with best practices.

The protocols and proposed guidance provided in this document also have been informed by, and are consistent with, the experience of Harvard hospital and health care workers and of essential research personnel in these settings who have continued to carry on COVID-related research programs while other labs ramped down. It is notable that adherence to the practices of social distancing, universal masking, and attentive avoidance and disinfection of surfaces has been highly successful in suppressing workplace transmission in these settings, despite the fact that they almost certainly represent higher risk environments due to the close proximity of COVID-19 patients. Thus, it is reasonable to expect that the rigorous adoption of these same precautions, which are already familiar to most research staff and have been demonstrated as effective in related research settings, will likewise prove effective in preventing workplace transmission and safeguarding the health of personnel returning to Harvard’s research labs.

Core principles for on-campus research

  • At this time, use of on-campus research space should be limited to those activities that cannot successfully be done remotely.
  • Individuals should access only those areas of campus buildings that are necessary to do their work.
  • On-campus research should be organized/prioritized to limit person density and simplify personal interaction networks while maintaining personal safety.
  • On-campus researchers should adopt "universal precautions" designed to mitigate the risk of viral transmission, including frequent handwashing, physical distancing, proper use of University-issued or approved masks, avoidance of contact with high-touch surfaces, and attention to surface and equipment disinfection protocols.
  • Explicit training on implementing these practices should be provided and demonstration of proficiency required prior to lab re-entry.

Introduction

With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, many communities and institutions took steps to reduce the spread of infection by promoting social distancing and aggressively limiting the number and size of gatherings. We now need to plan for the staged resumption of lab research on campus, with an eye towards returning to work as prudently and safely as possible. This document provides a road map for achieving that goal.

We present guidance for institutional actions prior to ramp-up, as well as guidance for principal investigators (PIs) and research groups to help them develop lab-specific plans based on the needs of the program, the nature of the work, and the layout of facilities. This guidance will be continuously reviewed and may be revised as new information and effective COVID-19 treatment and prevention options emerge.

The measures for ramp-up of lab and research activities outlined in this document aim to protect to the greatest extent practicable (i) individuals working in the labs (i.e.,students, postdoctoral fellows, faculty, and staff), and (ii) individuals authorized to be on campus to support this community (i.e., staff, vendors, shipping/delivery personnel). We expect all individuals working on campus to adopt "universal precautions" designed to mitigate the risk of viral transmission. We expect lab groups and departments to take steps to reduce the occupancy density of campus buildings and rooms (to the greatest extent practicable while maintaining personal safety) and to limit person-to-person contact within our facilities.

The development of this plan is based on the following guiding principles:

  • Our highest priority is to support community health and well-being.
  • We will sustain the excellence of Harvard in both teaching and research. 
  • We will adopt an evidence-based risk management approach to the COVID-19 challenge, and our decisions will be guided by public officials and health experts.
  • We will clearly communicate our policies and decision-making processes as they change over time, acknowledging that we are facing considerable uncertainty.

The resumption of on-campus research will occur in phases with timing based on governmental policies and the state of the disease, the health care system, and society at large. Research groups will need to develop and implement a coordinated and flexible plan for phased re-entry and to prepare for the possible short-notice quarantine of an individual or teams of individuals within the lab groups.

These guidelines have been developed by the Harvard University Laboratory Reopening Committee, the HMS/HSDM/Harvard Chan School Lab Ramp-Up Committee, the FAS Dean of Science and Dean of SEAS, and in coordination and consultation with Harvard Schools and affiliated hospitals. This document aims to assist Schools, departments, and PIs with the development and implementation of School-specific plans and to ensure consistency across our University community.  The School representatives have adopted the plan and their School-specific templates to be used for PI-specific plans are attached in the appendices.  These templates were reviewed and approved by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research (OVPR) in consultation with the Committee.  The individual PI plans will be reviewed by the Schools in coordination with the OVPR to ensure alignment with University-level guidelines.

Societal context and risk management

Our Schools are embedded in the greater Boston metropolitan area, and we are intimately linked to this region. We anticipate that once governmental restrictions are lifted, instances of infection will be detected within the Harvard community. This plan is designed to (i) keep the SARS-CoV-2 infection risk to individuals who conduct and support research at a level no greater than what they encounter in typical life off campus, and (ii) minimize the spread of any SARS-CoV-2 infection that may occur within the Harvard community.

The prerequisites for a resumption of research on campus include:

  1. The local health care system has sufficient capacity to handle both COVID-19 cases and routine health care needs. We presume this assessment will be conducted by government officials.
  2. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts permits lab re-entry. We presume this assessment will be conducted by government officials.
  3. Adequate University-authorized masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) are accessible and available without compromising their availability to health care workers. This assessment will be conducted by Harvard’s Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) offices.

Parts of the University are currently operating as an essential business under restricted-access protocols. However, because of the need for de-densification, some proposed activities are not currently being pursued or are being conducted remotely.

Individual responsibilities

To be permitted to enter laboratory areas, individuals must:

  1. Complete COVID-19 training relevant for one’s access.
  2. Comply with occupational health policies regarding reporting and contact-tracing of individuals with any COVID-19 symptoms or test-confirmed diagnosis.
  3. Comply with the safety measures defined in the approved plan specific to their research group and with School policies on face coverings and distancing protocols.
  4. Agree that each and every access of buildings represents an attestation – that one declares her/himself symptom-free, consent to the opt-in health policy, and agree to comply with all safety measures on and between campuses, both inside and outside buildings.

Staged ramp-up

Currently, the University is operating under “restricted access” criteria, a state in which the overwhelming majority of research is conducted remotely. There are very limited approvals in place for essential personnel to manage critical research and COVID-related activities.

This plan proposes the establishment of a staged-return process with the next stage being defined as “low density (Phases 0-2).” Entry into this stage will include a phased approach:

  • Phase-0: Planning and training. Develop, review and approve PI/lab-specific plans for return to on-campus research. Train everyone prior to entry onto campus, including those who have been on campus during the restricted access stage.
  • Phase-1: Re-entry of key personnel required to restart research projects. Includes (i) researchers (e.g., those needed to restart critical equipment, identify supply requirements for lab restart, prepare core facilities, sustain tissue or cell cultures, and sustain breeding animal colonies) and (ii) key support personnel required to restart critical infrastructure and core facilities.
  • Phase-2: Research and Support. Includes (i) personnel whose research is ready to start (based on the work completed in Phase-1) and (ii) corresponding support personnel required to be on campus to support research in Phase-2.

Subsequent phases of ramp-up will be developed and managed based on the trajectory of the pandemic, University and government guidance, and emerging information and experience gained in the low-density phases. A road map for such subsequent phases will be presented at a later date.

A PI-driven approach, with oversight

The principal investigator (PI) of a research program–with detailed knowledge of workflow, layout, personnel, shared instrumentation, and program priorities–will work with his/her/their research group and departmental administrators to craft a plan to resume a program’s research activities. The research group’s plans will be subject to departmental review. School approval of departmental plans will ensure commonality of principles in implementing approaches across the enterprise and coordination between multiple departments using the same building. No new work can begin until a lab’s plan receives School and University approval. 

Culture of safety

To safely and successfully open the labs, we must consciously cultivate a culture of safety. In occupational health and safety guidance, there are several key elements to building a workplace culture of safety that we incorporate in this effort: (i) communication, (ii) involvement of employees, (iii) training, (iv) leadership by example, and (v) a well-defined reporting process.

With these principles in mind, labs should consider the optimization of their phased re-opening a collective effort guided by the PI, who bears ultimate responsibility for compliance. COVID-19 safety is in a sense a new type of consideration for lab safety but has some similarities to biosafety and radiation safety. For COVID-19 safety, however, we do not have years of experience to draw from and instead must establish new protocols, guided by available evidence and common sense, to begin re-entry back to the labs.

Labs will formulate their draft plans in different ways. In some cases, this will be the work of a few individuals and in some cases many. However, after the plan is developed, every member of the lab should review this plan and raise and discuss concerns. The plan should be revised as necessary in light of this discussion, recognizing that in some cases it may not be feasible to address every concern and that some decisions will need to be made against a backdrop of considerable uncertainty. Early investment by PIs in engaging their entire lab community is critical to defining best solutions, ensuring equity, promoting compliance, and mitigating risk. All lab members should review plans prior to submission for approval and be informed should there be any changes prior to implementation.

Rationale and specific guidelines

The goal of this plan is to minimize the risk that the resumption of on-campus lab activity will contribute to the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 within the University and in the broader community. To do this, we must limit physical contact and proximity among people. The University will achieve this in three ways:

  • Limiting total person density within the University (where we expect that the target density will be established by both Harvard and the state and local governments based on local conditions),
  • Establishing space usage guidelines that optimize the distance between people, and
  • Constraining transmission by having individuals work in shifts.

The specifics of this plan are informed by the current Massachusetts Department of Public Health definition of the type of contact that creates high risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission and would trigger a quarantine recommendation, recognizing that testing of asymptomatic contacts is not yet available. According to current state guidelines, a high-risk contact is someone who has been in contact with a COVID-19 case for greater than 15 minutes at a distance of 6 feet or less. After this type of contact, an individual would be asked to self-quarantine for 14 days.

We recognize the current uncertainty inherent in this definition and seek to achieve a higher standard of workplace safety than simply the elimination of high-risk contact according to this definition. To do so, we will initially employ the following additional five layers of protection:

  • Required self-evaluation for COVID-19 symptoms and attestation as symptom-free for entry,
  • Mandatory use of University-issued or -approved protective face coverings–currently defined as surgical masks–while on campus and in buildings,
  • Enhanced density and distance requirements,
  • Limited physical contacts through shift work,
  • Enhanced facilities maintenance and custodial support.

These supplemental layers of protection are designed to maximize safety and to establish a workplace environment in which the state-mandated quarantine standards will be implemented if any COVID-19 cases emerge in our workforce, while still allowing most individuals working in the same area to continue their work. The details of the cleaning protocols and occupational health responses to a case of COVID-19 on campus are described below. A component of the overall strategy is a University-wide Occupational Health Plan that is currently under development.

We plan to assess the efficacy of the described policy by occupational health monitoring for case clusters among individuals who share proximate spaces but do not meet the definition of a close contact. Emergence of a cluster of infections may trigger a broader requirement for quarantine than that mandated by the state and initiate re-evaluation of the lab distancing plan.

As we gain experience or as the SARS-CoV-2 testing landscape evolves, we may find that some of these restrictions can be relaxed or otherwise modified.

Self-evaluation for COVID-19 symptoms

  • Individuals will follow the symptom screening protocol defined by EH&S and Occupational Health Services.
  • Any individual who uses their ID card to enter a building is making an attestation that they are free of COVID-19 symptoms. Schools are encouraged to adopt an affirmative daily declaration that is submitted electronically.
  • Any individual who has had a COVID-19 diagnosis will follow occupational health guidelines for return to work.

Viral and serological testing

  • Viral and serological tests for SARS-CoV-2 are increasingly available but not yet at a scale that would support near-universal, frequent screening for asymptomatic infection. The University’s approaches to screening will be modified as testing technologies evolve.

Protective face coverings

  • University-approved face masks, initially provided by the institution, will be worn at all times while in campus buildings except when eating or drinking. Face coverings will also be worn outdoors on campus.
  • Mask usage (i.e., donning, doffing and storage) will follow the EH&S protocols described in a required training module.
  • Any exceptions to the described mask usage policy require approval at the School level.

Density and distance guidelines

  • Density targets will conform to state and University guidelines.
  • School-specific implementation protocols will be provided separately.
  • Work that can successfully be done remotely should continue to be done remotely. For example, typical lab group and 1-1 meetings will continue to be held remotely. 
  • Workstations will be distanced from one another. CDC recommendations are that individuals maintain a minimal distance of 6 feet from one another, but labs should try to achieve a distance of 9 feet or greater between workstations where feasible. Whenever possible, researchers should be assigned a particular workstation. For shared workstations, only one researcher should work at a given workstation at a time, with disinfection of equipment and surfaces between users.
  • Experimental situations that require individuals to work in proximity to one another (<6 feet) will be rare. Such exceptions to the standard distancing guidelines should be clearly outlined in the proposed lab plan and require approval through the School’s processes.
  • The position of equipment and a given lab’s workflow will dictate the final plan. If significant deviations from the recommended distance requirements are proposed, they should be called out for discussion during review.
  • Desk seating for individuals should be separated by at least 6 feet, and ideally 9 feet or greater.
    • In general, time in lab should be dedicated to experimental and/or computational work that cannot be done remotely. Other activities like analyzing data, reading, writing and meeting with lab members should continue to be done remotely.
    • Use of shared offices is discouraged and efforts should be made to maximize a floor’s office space capacity (e.g., administrative offices and faculty not in use) to provide well distanced, pre-defined places to sit during experimental downtimes.
  • Lab plans should identify places for individuals to eat and drink separately from others.
  • If sharing space is unavoidable, seats should be separated by a minimal distance of 6 feet and ideally 9 feet or greater.

Constraint of social contacts through shift work

For almost all labs, shift work will be an important component of low-density phased re-entry planning, independent of distancing. Fixed shift teams limit the size of any given person’s potential interactions over time and serves as a buffering function that distance alone does not accomplish. Fixing shift teams – at least in the earliest phase of reopening – functionally limits the number of people in the lab who would potentially be at risk for infection as well as the number who may need to be quarantined should a lab cluster emerge. If a shift team is not fixed, then there is higher likelihood that everyone in a lab would interact at some point over a given infectious period, and if a lab cluster emerges, the whole lab would be at risk for infection and may need to be quarantined. Where multiple labs share space, it is important to get a consensus across all users on the appropriate model.

Shift schedules should be developed that are consistent with the following guiding principles:

  • All researchers and workers should be informed of safety measures that are being taken, due consideration given to concerns that are raised, and, where appropriate, reasonable accommodations made. Any issues related to an individual’s return to work should be discussed on a case-by-case basis with the PI, in consultation with department administrators and Occupational Health Services.
  • Everyone who is coming into labs should be familiar with the plans, safety procedures, and guidelines and should know who to contact if there are concerns.
  • The ability to participate in lab research should be granted in accordance with all applicable University policies and regulations, including non-discrimination.

Below, three different shift models are described; other models may be developed as well. The most appropriate model will depend on a lab’s work and space layout (e.g., need to access animals, experimental duration) and staff preference. It is important to note at the outset that inevitably people will have experiments that extend past the boundaries of their shifts. However, shift teams should be considered fixed until we better understand workplace transmission risk. Thus, for some labs, this will necessarily change how projects are structured. Implementing shift work may necessitate more team science and if prolonged, could durably alter how we conduct research. The mechanism by which shifts are assigned are not defined, but considerations should include lab members’ transportation options, and childcare responsibilities, and the ability of operations in a given site to support the designated shift hours. At the current time, campus buildings will be open for low-density shift work by researchers seven days a week with hours designated at the School level.

Shift model A – divide the day

The day is divided into two shifts. Every lab member is assigned to an AM or PM shift. Individuals can only come in during their shift. Two 4-hour shifts may not be realistic for many labs. Time windows that allow closer to 8 hours per shift (e.g., 6:00 AM – 1:00 PM–lab does wipe down on exit; 2:00 PM – 10:00 PM–lab does wipe down on exit) may be possible but should address the operation’s ability to support extended hours and accommodate any lab member. Plans should include a time buffer to ensure shift changes occur without cross-contact.

Shift model B - divide the week

The week is divided into two shifts. The easiest division to imagine is MonWedFri/ TueThuSatSun but other divisions are possible (Sun - Wed and Thu-Sat). This allows longer workdays for experiments that are not easily accomplished in 4- to 6-hour blocks. There is less daily concern about (and friction over) overlap. However, some people would always be working on the weekends.

Shift model C - somewhat longer blocks

A 15-day period could be divided into three blocks. Lab personnel (or physically proximate groups) are divided into three pods. Pod A works on campus the first 5 days and then works remotely for the next 10 days. Pod B works remotely the first 5 days, on campus the next 5 days, and then remotely the last 5 days. Pod C works remotely the first 10 days and then on campus for the last 5 days. That ends a 15-day period. This strategy is designed to even more strictly isolate work units.

Enhanced facilities maintenance

Schools will optimize operational protocols to minimize SARS-CoV-2 transmission risk, including:

  • An entry/exit and common space management plan
  • Protocols and training for outside vendors, contractors and visitors
  • Protocols and training for daily cleaning of lab and office spaces by researchers
  • Enhanced cleaning protocols for common spaces including bathrooms
  • Specific bathroom, elevator and kitchen protocols to minimize shared occupancy and increase opportunities for surface decontamination
  • Optimization of HVAC performance to maximize air exchange and enhancement of filtration where feasible
  • Additional modifications to physical environment to minimize surface contact.

Compliance

It is expected that every member of the Harvard community will comply with the safety principles described above. However, building deep familiarity with safety protocols will take time and mistakes will happen. Establishing a culture of safety requires a nonpunitive system for reporting and addressing concerns, in keeping with University policies protecting good faith reporting of suspected violations of law or Harvard policy. PIs are ultimately accountable for the safe conduct of work within their labs.

  • Every lab will identify a COVID-19 safety officer who may be the existing lab safety officer. This individual will serve as a reference for lab members and as a point of contact for the School.
  • Each School will establish a COVID-19 oversight team. This team will review changes in individual lab plans and institutional guidance, monitor compliance, and collect and provide information relevant to any changes in policies or procedures to COVID-19 safety officers and PIs.
  • Lab COVID-19 safety officers will meet regularly as a group with the respective School COVID-19 oversight structure to discuss best practices, identify deficiencies, and receive relevant information to communicate back to lab members.
  • Deficiencies may also be brought directly to the attention of the PI, department or area chair, School, and University.
  • The COVID-19 oversight team will work with the appropriate department or area chair to establish appropriate corrective action in case of infractions. First responses may include education, retraining, or reconsideration/modification of the lab re-entry plan.
  • Repeated infractions or willful non-compliance may result in revocation of an individual’s or an entire lab’s ability to work on campus.

Note: The School COVID-19 oversight teams are strongly encouraged to report their findings to their representative(s) on the University Laboratory Reopening Planning Committee so that their experiences and enhancements can be shared with the broader Harvard research community.

Occupational Health Services (in development)

  • Individuals working on campus must comply with the program overseen by Occupational Health Services, which will direct individuals to testing and retraining when appropriate and monitor School-wide data for possible clusters of infection in campus buildings.
  • Any instances of symptoms, exposure, or a positive test will be disclosed to Occupational Health Services.
  • Individuals will comply with isolation and quarantine policies established by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the University.
  • These guidelines are subject to change pending development in availability of viral and serological testing and/or changes in state guidelines.