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COVID-19 FAQs

Thank you for working so hard to ramp down research efforts on such short notice. We are all facing an unprecedented work stoppage and are grateful for your cooperation. The current spread of the coronavirus is exponential in several regions of the US and is likely to become so in many others. The inability to test for virus in the first few weeks of infection means we don’t have accurate information on the number of infected citizens but the data from China and Europe suggest it is likely to be high in the near future. Models of virus spread indicate that social distancing is an important tool to minimize transmission and to bend the growth curve from exponential to flat. Thus, reducing the number of people on campus, in labs, in the medical center is an important first step in prevention.

These FAQs are current as of March 17. Any updates or changes are labeled with the date of the update.

March 20th Update:
University leadership has implemented a second phase of remote work for staff through April 11.

Where are we now?

To implement the remote working policy, our fantastic group of department chairs and center directors have worked with faculty on their individual ramp down plans and have ensured that core facilities ceased operations in a timely fashion. Preservation of research capabilities and precious materials has been a priority so accommodations have been made for continuation of longitudinal studies employing rare reagents (e.g., genetically engineered animals). We’ve moved so quickly that a number of important questions weren’t addressed in the transition. Thanks to our tremendous associate and assistant deans we now have some answers to these questions.

How do I pay staff who aren’t working in my laboratory?

All staff will be paid in full for the four-week period. Specifics are listed on the Vanderbilt coronavirus website (https://www.vanderbilt.edu/coronavirus/faq/ ). Briefly, staff should categorize those hours that can’t be attributed to actual lab work as “Administrative Leave”. They have received instructions on how to do this.  NIH is being extremely flexible during this period and state on their FAQ site that individuals can be paid from research grants even if research is not being conducted (https://grants.nih.gov/faqs#/covid-19.htm?anchor=question55773 ).

What communications have gone to graduate students and postdocs?

Interim policies have been instituted for remote instruction in graduate student classes, research rotations, qualifying examinations, committee meetings, and dissertation defenses. Guidelines have also been communicated to postdocs. The attached file reproduces some of the key emails. Please note that all School of Medicine PhD students are subject to the same ramp down policies regardless of whether they are working in a VU or VUMC laboratory. Likewise, postdocs on training grants or fellowships are subject to the same ramp down policies regardless of whether they are working in a basic science or clinical laboratory. Postdocs supported by research grants to clinical faculty are subject to VUMC policies on remote working (see below).

Is animal care still functioning?

The Division of Animal Care is fully staffed and performing normal functions. However, they will not be able to perform maintenance of animal colonies normally conducted by principal investigators such as providing special diets or water. Faculty will need to develop a schedule for staff to maintain the colonies at a basal level that corresponds to their IACUC protocols. DAC is still receiving animals from other universities and from outside vendors and will allow transfer from the Vanderbilt Genome Editing Resource.

March 23rd Update:
DAC will continue to provide all required regular care of animals as they have done in the past. Nothing about their level of care has changed since our laboratories have been shutting down. Individual laboratories are still responsible for animal husbandry and any special care required by individual animal care protocols. We recommend that you try to complete this husbandry and special care in as few of trips as possible and in as little time as possible. In addition, please try to work around the schedules of animal care technicians so that personal distancing can be maintained. Please be sure to use the Accommodations and Building Access form provided to you by your department chair to indicate the personnel who are likely to need access to your laboratory and animal care facilities in the coming weeks. Mayor Cooper’s “Safer at Home” directive considers biomedical research as ‘essential business.’ While we don’t anticipate this, if your lab personnel are asked why they are traveling to or are at work, they should explain that they are biomedical research laboratory personnel.

What about biohazard pickup?

March 23rd Update:
Please note that VU biohazard waste pickups will occur in 6159 MRB III on THURSDAYS ONLY.
For VUMC buildings, biohazard pickup will occur as it normally does.

How about access to research buildings?

Entrance to all VU buildings is by card access only. Be sure to have your ID with you at all times. We are speaking with the VU Police Department about increased walkthroughs of research buildings for the near future to ensure security. VUMC buildings are currently open.

What about custodial services?

March 24th Update:

Due the current circumstances, the custodial staff are unable to enter MRB III labs to do routine trash pickup. Recycling has also halted pickups for now. If you need the routine trash disposal (including all cardboard, plastics, non-confidential paper and aluminum), please put the trash can(s) outside your lab.

There will be minimal custodial services in the common spaces of MRB III: bathrooms and atrium lunch areas. If you have trash generated in the labs or offices, it should be placed in the hallways and the custodians will pick it up in the evening.

If you have any questions or concerns, please email vbs-firm@vanderbilt.edu.

These are very stressful times; what about psychological and wellness counseling?

The University Counseling Center and the Graduate School Lifecoach service remain open for virtual sessions (https://www.vanderbilt.edu/ucc/ ).

Are core facilities operating?

VU-sponsored core facilities have ramped down operations.

 

Summary

Each institution is doing what it thinks is best to continue executing on its mission while protecting its local and regional community. Some other private institutions such as Harvard, MIT, Johns Hopkins and Penn have taken similar actions to Vanderbilt University in shutting down laboratory operations. Many state institutions have not shut down and their laboratories appear open and fully staffed. VUMC laboratories are following medical center guidance, which recently transitioned from optional work from home to encouraged work from home. VUMC leadership is evaluating the situation on a daily basis. VUMC’s healthcare operations are critical to the health of middle Tennessee and the southeast United States and many of its laboratories and core labs support diagnostic and clinical trials that are essential to its operations. However, there are also research laboratories that function very similarly to laboratories in the Basic Sciences. PhD students and postdocs supported by training grants and individual fellowships who work in VUMC laboratories are subject to the same policies as students and postdocs working in VU laboratories. They are instructed to ramp down their laboratory research immediately and develop work from home plans with their mentors. This policy is supported by VUMC leadership. In addition, VUMC is practicing social distancing in all their work spaces, including research spaces. VUMC is deploying shift work and setting schedules that enable the social distancing for the use of shared laboratory spaces and common equipment, hoods, etc. For those of you in adjoining laboratories, we encourage you to work with your neighboring VUMC principal investigators to develop schedules that minimize interactions of your staff performing critical maintenance operations with VUMC staff.

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