How we reopened EMU’s research programs during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Elizabeth Midgorden posted 09-08-2020 14:00

  
Reposted blog by Dr. Sonia Chawla, Research Compliance Officer at Eastern Michigan University. We are always interested in highlighting the stories of our customers. If you are interested in sharing your perspective, let us know.  

Here at Eastern Michigan University, we have a community of about 20,000 people, including 16,000 undergrad and graduate students plus faculty and staff. We focus on social, behavioral, and educational research, with some programs in the health sciences that conduct applied research. We also have wet lab research in our chemistry, biology, physics, engineering, and technology departments. We have about $11 million in external research funding.

The shutdown

Like you, everything changed for us in early March. We got an email from our president on Wednesday, March 11, that campus was going to close, and classes were cancelled the next two days. The following Monday, we were allowed back on campus to get files, computers, and anything else we needed to work from home. Our IT department set up some procedures for people to check out computers and take them home.

Then until mid-June, only people whom the provost determined to be essential workers could be on campus. Every single day, they had to email their supervisor a health screening form certifying that they were in good health, hadn’t experienced any symptoms, and hadn’t been exposed to anyone with COVID in the past 72 hours. All the buildings were locked and card readers were shut down to control access.

A new research committee

We put together a committee of about 15 people to discuss logistical issues and obtain input on  the procedures we drafted. We talked about things like how various types of research could take place remotely. Then our decisions had to go on to the provost, chief of staff, and faculty senate to get approval. It was a collaborative process between the administration and the faculty, and faculty was given the opportunity to provide input. 

We’re in Michigan and our governor has been on top of things, issuing close to 200 executive orders regarding COVID-19, so we’ve been following her guidance. That’s made it easier to develop procedures to deal with the pandemic. At the time we started, most other institutions were forming committees to look into reopening to research as well, and very few peer institutions had published their reopening procedures. On the flip side, with new executive orders coming out, we had to reconvene a few times and adjust our plans.

Animal care changes

We have one animal care technician in charge of about 30-40 mouse cages and a dozen rat cages. Before COVID, students would help our animal care technician so he didn’t have to go into work seven days a week.

After campus closed, he was deemed essential, but we couldn’t bring students to campus to help him. Department heads offered to do animal health checks if he could train them, but ultimately he decided to work seven days a week. Early on, we established a schedule with him so the animals on campus were cared for, as well as lining up a couple of backups to ensure continuity with essential vivarium tasks. We shut the breeding program down, and there was no research going on. The vivarium was open for routine animal care. 

Human research changes

We halted all in-person human subject research. Virtual human subject research could keep going, and some investigators were able to transition their in-person research to virtual. I got a lot of phone calls from investigators about how they can transition their research to virtual–for example, research involving focus groups. We have an orthotics and prosthetics program and an exercise physiology program, but those can’t easily be transitioned. For example, someone running on a treadmill is breathing heavily and that increases the risk of COVID. Even if they’re wearing a mask, the mask is used to measure oxygen use and is not a protective mask.

If in-person research could transition to virtual, those researchers had to submit a modification to the IRB. We still reviewed protocols and prioritized modifications using the Cayuse IRB (Human Ethics) app. Our normal turnaround time for modifications is two business days, but we tried to shorten that to 24 hours in this case. Cayuse made it really easy to immediately notify researchers and manage modifications online: we put a notification as well as emailing researchers through the app about in-person research being halted.

Planning and preparing to reopen

Since it was an unprecedented situation, we had to do a lot of inter-office coordination before we could reopen:

  • We had to work with accounts payable and procurement, because if researchers were going to return to doing research on campus, they needed to get the supplies they needed.
  • We also had to work with the director of custodial services to discuss how very specific areas (like a certain lab on a certain floor) would be cleaned and disinfected 
  • We had to work with IT to get people card access.
  • We needed to work with the dean of students, who was coordinating contact tracing.
  • We had to coordinate with campus safety so they knew who was allowed back.

We spent a lot of time figuring out who our stakeholders were, figuring out mutually agreeable procedures, getting the news out, and doing training that’s required by our state.

The main challenge: training

The one problem was that our online training system was linked to our payroll system, so faculty and staff could access the required training for returning to campus, but graduate students could not. So I had to do training over Zoom for students, sometimes on the evenings and weekends. Eventually I had time to convert the training into our learning management system that we use for students. That was really the only hiccup we had, and everyone felt like the training was a success.

Reopening

After two and a half months, we reopened in Mid-June. Our campus is still restricted to essential employees and researchers, who must get supervisor approval to be on campus (our classes are all online and student move-in has been delayed until the third week in September, and non-essential staff are all working remotely). The process of research teams returning to campus has several steps:

  1. Researchers have to submit a request form to their dean to approve before they can come back to campus. 
  2. The dean has a set of criteria to evaluate whether to approve both the lab reopening and the personnel returning. 
  3. Once the dean grants approval, the researcher has to do online training and submit their training certificate to the dean and our lab compliance manager.
  4. The researcher and lab compliance manager schedule a walkthrough of the building and lab, where they tape off traffic flow patterns on the lab floor and come up with a list of high-touch points and surfaces that need to be cleaned and disinfected.
  5. After that walkthrough, the investigator can return to the lab. They must submit a health screening every day to be allowed on campus.

We have about 100 people back on campus now conducting research. All of our highly active researchers are back doing their work, but not a lot of our faculty members do wet lab work–they mostly do human subjects work, which they can do remotely. We haven’t restarted in-person human subjects research yet.

Come hear more!

I’m sure this blog post raises some questions, and you might want to ask about how to do some of these things at your institution. Good news: I’ll be speaking at the upcoming Connect by Cayuse conference! It’s free to attend. My session is Wednesday, Sept. 23 at 10:40 a.m. Pacific and I’d love to see you there (virtually, of course) to elaborate on the procedures we took to reopen and answer any questions you might have. Learn more here!

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