Guidelines for Resuming Campus Research Operations
The COVID-19 Research Ramp-Up section provides policy and guidelines for the gradual ramping back up of research activities. The different sections detail approaches to clinical, experimental laboratory, human subject, social science and humanities, and computational and data science research. Crucial to the development of these guidelines is the realization that each laboratory environment is different.
The PI’s are best placed to design realistic return to research plans calibrated against a common university framework to ensure a safe workplace for students, trainees, and staff. Individual lab plans should be critically reviewed by home department faculty, and department chairs will discuss their faculty plans with their research vice deans (or equivalent).
Departments and schools should establish best practices and enforcement measures to maximize the return to productive research while protecting all researchers.
- Adhere to the COVID‐19 guidelines by the CDC, State of California, Cal‐OSHA, City of Los Angeles, and USC EH&S, HR, Provost’s office, and DPS.
- Protect the health and safety of research workforce, patients and human subjects
- Prioritize the careers of early researchers (junior faculty, postdocs, late stage graduate students)
- Prioritize the components of the research enterprise that are critical for long‐term institutional success (i.e., core facilities) and for all involved stakeholders (faculty, staff, trainees, and students)
- Require signed consent forms/waivers for all researchers and students resuming campus work, specifying hygiene and social distancing guidelines, and providing guidelines for handling heterogeneity in eagerness/reluctance to return to campus due to personal risk levels based on age group, other vulnerabilities, etc.
- Provide instructional videos to explain expectations and guidelines
- Undergraduates (and K‐12 students) will not be doing research on campus until on‐campus instruction resumes. They cannot be included in PI’s research transition plans.
- Graduate students and postdoctoral trainees choose to opt‐into on‐site research activities; for the early phases of return to research, they may continue to work remotely if uncomfortable about the risk to their health of coming to campus.
- Maintain vigilance to protect at‐risk individuals.
- The University will determine the research phase at which the campus is operating, defined by the public health conditions, the minimum level of PPE availability to researchers, the ability to conduct contact tracing after cases of infection, and the target density in the workplace intended to minimize transmission of the virus and comply with local regulations. This is a dynamic process, and it is possible that the research phase may have to decrease again.
- Expand testing to identify hot spots for COVID‐19 infection, and when adequate standards exist, those who have antibody resistance to the virus.
- Develop and implement a transparent process for allowing campus access that builds on effective communication with all stakeholders.
- Be ready to roll back to earlier phases if LA County Health Department issues or other authorities issue recommendations to do so; revert to previously approved essential research personnel from the relevant previous phase.
With multiple committees working in parallel on Project Restart, there are several critical dependencies to acknowledge. For the policy and guidelines these dependencies are:
- Testing: Will this be an integral part of the return of researchers to campus? Capacity and purpose? (Data collection on hot spots, follow up on cases of infection, etc.)
- PPE: availability, standardization (ISO face masks, not ad hoc coverings). Who is responsible for rapid procurement and distribution?
- Contact tracing: Who has responsibility for primary recording of researcher’s location and for follow up after case of infection?
- The legal landscape: requirement of waivers from all researchers (students, staff, and faculty) acknowledging the inherent risk at the workplace; if testing takes place how information may be used; and contact tracing.
- There is a compelling case for the university to require and provide a base level of standardized PPE. Procurement of PPE should be centralized to utilize USC collective purchasing power. Bring‐your‐own face coverings and other ad hoc PPE does not convey a safe workplace to our research workforce.
- Without a regular testing protocol in place, all researchers returning in the second phase (Research Phase 2A, defined in Table) should be aware and acknowledge (in the form of a waiver) the risks of the workplace to infection. Students and postdoctoral trainees must opt in to conduct research on campus.
- In the phase 2A (see Table) the University should restrict peak research workforce on campus to 30% of normal occupancy or the maximum allowed within 6 feet (10 feet preferred) of social distancing at all times, in all spaces. Building‐specific plans will be required (see an example in Figure 1 below).
- As USC is recommending travel to campus only by car, parking should remain free of charge to all researchers beyond May 31 until the end of the summer, or a full return to normal operation, whichever comes sooner. At the very least, this should include graduate students, postdocs, and essential staff, as well as those faculty members who will be required to conduct to some portion of their workdays at USC (e.g., Research Task Force Members).
- The peak research workforce % will only rise as state, county, and city ordinance allow and the university can continue to provide for a safe workplace.
- Access to campus should be requested, granted, and approved each time a researcher is returning to campus, and monitored at the campus or building level.
- Some level of viral testing will be implemented so the testing data can be used for planning and review of research return policies.
Figure 1. Example schematic of floor plan with 25% occupancy at 6ft social distancing between people and the use of furniture/cubicle barriers
- Procurement of sufficient PPE, hand sanitizers, and decontaminating solutions to be provided for all research spaces. Until testing is implemented, the assumption must be that individuals and surfaces in the lab may be infected. A base level of PPE is required and must include a standardized (ISO) disposable face mask. Depending on department and school requirements, it may also include disposable lab gowns, shoe coverings, and gloves. Ad hoc fabric face coverings are not sufficient or appropriate protection as they are not uniform, they rely on regular washing by the owner, and they will degrade with continued use.
- The university should take the lead in identifying a personnel tracking system to monitor the level of use of research spaces. This will achieve two goals. First, it will provide evidence as to whether a desired low‐personnel density level has been attained, and therefore determine whether policies need to be changed. Second, in case of an infection, it will permit accurate contact tracing.
- For approved researchers, access to gated campus should be controlled through monitored entrances where researchers check in and out; labs and buildings should have unique QR codes to be used for check‐in and occupancy data tracking and contact tracing in case of researcher infection. For campuses or offices which are not gated (e.g., ISI, Keck hospitals, HSC), researchers entering the building should be monitored and approved according to a plan designed by workplace coordinator(s), assigned by the school/department, responsible for potential impact on the workplace‐specific policy (more on workplace coordinators below).
- Coordinate an increase in FMS/Aramark operations to handle the increased demands on decontamination. Post information about FMS/Aramark cleaning schedules and practices.
- Work with public health agencies and Cal‐OSHA to ensure compliance.
- Develop a legal framework (by OGC and HR working together) for handling consent and refusal to go back on campus.
- Develop and disseminate instructional tools (videos, online tutorials) as well as posters in labs and corridors (as well as bathrooms) that describe best practices for safe research including how to effectively use PPE.
- Determine policies and procedures for parking, including whether there will be any deviation from standard costs during specific phases of return, and for intra‐ and intercampus transportation service.
- COVID‐19 Research Safety Guidelines should be developed by the University (e.g., USC Chief Health Officer and/or EH&S) to provide overarching guidance and expectations for research, based on up‐to‐date public health and university requirements, including physical distancing, density, and hygiene/safety standards. Guidelines should include local, state, and national public health and/or governmental authority directives to shelter‐at‐home and maintain physical distancing; protect the mental and physical health and safety of the research workforce, clinical patients, and human research subjects; and how ramping up efforts will ensure the safety of all employees and compliance with public health guidelines. The Guidelines will necessarily be a fluid, “living” document to be maintained, updated, and regularly communicated/disseminated by the university to schools and researchers.
- The transition back to work will be gradual, with various intermediate levels of activity (e.g., research phase 1‐4) before resumption of full operations. We expect local authorities to only allow return to work if strict controls are in place and compliance can be demonstrated.
- Using the USC‐wide return to work phase system, agree on standards of activity that are appropriate to each phase with their principal investigators. Ensure that while restrictive measures are still in place, all stakeholders agree to respect these standards of activity.
- For laboratory or office‐space research: individual PIs will be asked to provide a research transition plan to gradually restore research in their research spaces. This must include a description, for each campus research phase, of what activities would be carried out and by whom, what peak personnel density are being proposed for each of their research spaces, any plans to implement shifts (while maintaining lab safety), and the necessary department or school level staff support they are assuming for each phase in their plan. This plan must adhere to specified conditions of social distancing and hygiene. A departmental plan, calibrated to the same campus research phase scale, should be developed for the usage of all shared instrumentation facilities.
- For Clinical Research: Schools have the responsibility of reviewing plans for dedicated research facilities before they can begin supporting direct contact human subjects research. Note: Clinical care facilities will have responsibility for developing and approving plans to support research in clinical spaces. IRBs will have responsibility for reviewing and approving individual protocols in either type of on‐campus facility.
- Departments (or for smaller units, schools) will appoint a faculty task force to oversee the return to work plan. The PI research transition plans will be carefully reviewed by this task force and by department chairs (or vice deans). The task force will critically review each plan and require refinements from PIs to lead to common standards of risk, protection of students and postdocs, across a department’s groups. The department chair must be able to defend the full set of plans adopted by the department.
- Schools/departments will assign workplace coordinator(s) (possibly one per building) responsible for potential impact on the workplace. They will apply the research ramp‐up protocol to the specific unit/building/lab. They should meet regularly (at least monthly) with the appropriate school‐level administrator to ensure consistency across buildings/departments within a school.
- For USC doctoral trainees working in off‐site (e.g., the Buck Institute in Northern California), a research transition plan should be provided by the local supervisor for review at USC.
- Departmental research transition plans will be reviewed and discussed with the school executive vice dean/divisional dean or vice/associate dean for research. Working through the research vice/associate deans group convened by the vice president of research, finalized school‐recommended plans will be shared with and approved by the vice president of research and the provost.