UW News

June 4, 2020

UW guidelines helping to ramp up research safely during COVID-19

UW News

In March, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the Seattle region, the University of Washington transitioned to online and virtual instruction for all three of its campuses. At the same time, staff and leadership in the UW Office of Research — including Mary Lidstrom, vice provost for research — were preparing for the pandemic’s impact on the university’s rich tapestry of research programs and laboratories.

Under guidelines first released in late March by the office — and in line with the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” orders from Gov. Jay Inslee that took effect on March 25 — most UW researchers, which include faculty, staff, postdoctoral researchers, graduate and undergraduate students, were directed to start working from home if they had not done so already. Only essential research could continue at UW facilities, and then only with safety measures such as social distancing, using personal protective equipment, and decontaminating equipment and surfaces.

Those experiences early in the pandemic made UW an example for other U.S. institutions as the novel coronavirus spread. In May, the Office of Research released guidelines for a safe “ramp up” of in-person, on-campus research activities that had been paused. Lidstrom and colleagues from five other prominent research universities also co-authored a policy forum article, published May 28 in Science, highlighting key issues that institutions must address as they proceed with research ramp-up plans.

Lidstrom, who is also a UW professor of chemical engineering and of microbiology, sat down virtually with UW News to discuss the evolving picture of research at the UW.

A person speaking at a lecturn

Mary Lidstrom, UW vice provost for research, speaking at the Northwest Quantum Nexus summit on March 18, 2019.Andrea Starr/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

What happened to research at the UW when COVID-19 hit the Seattle region?

ML: Within days of Gov. Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order in late March, we distributed guidelines for UW-related research activities. Understandably, a lot of research ramped down, but the university also allowed certain essential research to continue. This included all COVID-19 research, which was cast quite broadly; biomedical and public health research; long-term experiments; work needed to maintain equipment or for animal care; and research that graduate students needed to complete their degrees by the end of the school year. All of these activities could continue, provided strict safety and social distancing requirements were followed.

Many research-related activities continued remotely: data analysis, group meetings, seminars, preparing manuscripts and proposals, online trainings, even remote data collection — like in astronomy.

But non-essential, on-campus research activities ramped down pretty quickly. We also paused most research with human subjects and field research. Depending on the area, some research laboratories did close, but almost all had some people coming in for safety and maintenance issues — animal care, maintenance and related activities.

In addition, I would like to point to the amazing people in the UW research administration and compliance offices, who moved all possible workload online in a matter of days, continued to support the research enterprise without a pause, and set up processes to prioritize COVID-19 related research. In most cases they turned around complex applications in a matter of hours.  Without them, we could not have accomplished what we have to date.

What considerations did you take as the Office of Research prepared these guidelines?

ML: Our focus is on helping people — and safeguarding their health and well-being. We really wanted to keep the number of people coming to campus for research purposes at a minimum. And even for essential research activities, no one is required to come to campus. If people cannot come to campus due to health concerns, child care issues, transportation issues or having vulnerable family members, we must accommodate them. That has been the university’s policy since the pandemic started, and that remains in place even as we have made preparations to “ramp up” some research activities once again.

How has the move to “ramp up” research changed these guidelines?

ML: In early May, the governor announced plans for a phased reopening of Washington’s economy. In response, we prepared and distributed guidelines for allowing certain in-person research activities on campus, provided a set of strict safety measures were met.

What was the motivation behind these new guidelines?

ML: Research is one of the core functions of this university. And in early May, the public health metrics of the COVID-19 pandemic in Washington were looking sufficiently positive that we thought we could start to allow small numbers of individuals to return to campus for research once again. That is happening now. But, we are phasing it in gradually and thoughtfully.

We are also very much aware that, now and moving forward, there are circumstances where coming to campus is not an option. We don’t want anyone to feel pressured to come in. We are recognizing that careers are at stake, and many researchers are eager to resume research. So, we are trying to make it permissive to come to campus in a safe way — but this is in no way required.

How did the Office of Research prepare these guidelines?

ML: We have a whole team working on this within the Office of Research. We’ve also gotten a great deal of input from academic units, campus leaders and advisory groups — including department chairs, deans’ offices and the Faculty Council on Research. We also worked closely with UW Environmental Health and Safety. Everyone stepped up and was very helpful. We had quite a bit of excellent advice.

What are some steps that researchers must take to be able to return to campus?

ML: There are many steps, more than I can cover here. But I can give you an overview.

Every principal investigator — a professor or head of a research group — must prepare a detailed plan for resuming in-person research while maintaining social distancing requirements and other safety measures. There’s quite a lot that must go into this plan: strict limits on the number of people in each room in the research space; moving equipment and staggering schedules to accommodate social distancing; use of personal protective equipment; designating who will do what; educating team members about health attestation and safety requirements; and staying home if they come down with symptoms.

Then, they must get that plan approved by their department chair or equivalent, order and receive all necessary supplies — including personal protective equipment — and that’s all before anyone can even show up to campus.

Have UW policies shaped what’s happened at other universities?

ML: Yes, they have. We were one of the first major research universities to have to deal with COVID-19. We made our initial guidelines public for other institutions to view. They could even use them as templates for their own guidelines. Some of my counterparts in the University of California system reached out to me and ultimately used our framework to help create guidelines for the UC system. That in turn went out to colleagues across the country, being improved upon at each step. The whole community of research offices has worked together and helped each other. It’s just been amazing.

That’s what led to this policy forum article, as well. We wanted to share the considerations we’ve made and raise important issues like safety, social distancing, and the need for gradual, thoughtful ramping up. We’re not going through this alone, and we should continue to help one another.

For more information, contact Lidstrom at lidstrom@uw.edu.