Revised Guidance for Laboratories During COVID-19

Published April 13, 2021

Dear laboratory-based researchers,

It has now been over a year since we ramped down our laboratory research due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we, along with our peer institutions across the country, cautiously ramped back up. Across the country and in St. Louis we have seen surges throughout the year, and these will likely continue. Rates of infection and hospitalization due to COVID-19 in the St. Louis region continue to be high, and the effective reproduction number continues to hover around 1.0 or above. As vaccination rates increase, we are optimistic that these surges will lessen in 2021. However, the new, more transmissible variants are still of great concern, so we cannot relax our vigilance. We will continue to monitor the situation and make any necessary changes to our guidelines as circumstances warrant.

We have also learned a great deal about the transmission of the virus over this past year. When we all “mask up” and keep physically distant, we do not see transmission in our laboratories, our clinics, or our classrooms. Because of these encouraging observations, we are revising and simplifying our guidance for laboratory-based research with an emphasis on masking, physical distancing, and hand hygiene, while following our city and county mandates. We have been at the “yellow” level since last summer, and although we are not moving to “green”, we are relaxing many restrictions – perhaps we call this “chartreuse”?

The guidance below supersedes previously published guidance for laboratories. It is effective immediately, although faculty should remember that many laboratory staff and trainees may need time to adjust their schedules, so they should give their laboratories adequate time to implement any changes.

Best regards,
Jennifer Lodge, PhD
Vice Chancellor for Research

Summary:

  • Guidance is for laboratory-based research only
  • Faculty/PIs are responsible for monitoring the behavior in their laboratory and compliance with this guidance
  • Universal masking, 6 ft physical distancing, and hand hygiene are emphasized as the major mechanisms to prevent transmission
  • No unmasked gatherings – eating and drinking with others is high risk!
  • In-person lab meetings may recommence – with masking, physical distancing, and no food or drink.
  • Approval of lab plans is no longer required
  • Shifts and cohorts may be discontinued
  • Vaccinations do not impact on-campus guidance
  • No COVID-related restrictions on types of personnel
  • Non-essential travel is still not permitted (exceptions are possible for essential research-related travel)

Monitoring and Compliance:
Faculty/PIs are responsible for the behavior in their laboratories and ensuring that the guidelines are followed. Lab members should discuss concerns with their lab manager, lab PI, division director/department chair, the Associate Dean for Research or submit concerns to research.wustl.edu/covid19/.

Masking:
Masks must be worn on campus when indoors in all public and shared spaces, unless you are alone in a room. The CDC recommends masks with two or more layers that cover the nose and mouth and fit snugly: www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/about-face-coverings.html and www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/disinfecting-building-facility.html.

WashU recommends disposable masks in settings that contain biological, chemical, or radioactive hazards, which includes most laboratories. Do not use neck gaiters, poorly fitting or thin masks with low thread counts or loosely woven material. Surgical/isolation masks are recommended or required if people have to work with others in close proximity (less than 6 ft) for more than 15 minutes.

Density Restrictions and Physical Distancing:
Physical distancing will be the only density restriction in place. Pre-COVID activity or occupancy levels are no longer a factor. Six feet physical distancing is still recommended by the CDC and directives from the city and county both call for 6 ft physical distancing in workplaces. Therefore, we continue to require a minimum of 6 ft between occupied workstations. Any closer interactions are limited to no more than 15 minutes. We do recognize that some tasks require being closer than 6 ft for more than 15 minutes. In that case, it is recommended that an isolation/surgical mask be used and the encounters be recorded for future contact tracing. Because there have been no documented cases of transmission in the laboratories or classrooms, the risk of having to shut down an entire lab for quarantine is very low, so cohorts and non-overlapping shifts are no longer recommended as a hedge against complete lab shutdown.

Hand Hygiene and Disinfecting Surfaces:
The CDC has recently revised its guidance on surface disinfection to emphasize hand hygiene and de-emphasize frequent surface cleaning: www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/disinfecting-building-facility.html

“The virus that causes COVID-19 can land on surfaces. It’s possible for people to become infected if they touch those surfaces and then touch their nose, mouth, or eyes. In most situations, the risk of infection from touching a surface is low. The most reliable way to prevent infection from surfaces is to regularly wash hands or use hand sanitizer.”

Therefore, we continue to recommend frequent hand washing and once or twice per day sanitizing of frequently touched surfaces (e.g. doorknobs, elevator buttons, coffee machines), and are eliminating the recommendations for general surface sanitization.

Break Rooms:
Eating and drinking with others is the major activity that has resulted in transmission on campus. All faculty, lab managers, and departments should ensure that all personnel have adequate space for taking a break that is at least 6 ft from others. With the nicer weather, personnel are strongly advised to take their eating and drinking breaks outdoors. Any in-person gatherings or discussions should be masked and not include food and drink. Items like coffee machines are allowed in break rooms, and personnel are encouraged to wash hands after touching shared surfaces and before eating or drinking.

In-Person Lab Meetings:
In-person lab meetings for work purposes (not social activities), are now permitted as long as all participants adhere to campus guidelines, and all participants wear masks and are 6 ft apart. Do not exceed the occupancy limits of the room, which are determined by the size of the room. On the Danforth campus, the county limits conference rooms to 10 people. Importantly, no food or drink is allowed. Of note, there has been no transmission in our classrooms, indicating that this kind of gathering is safe when guidelines are followed.

Plans:
Our faculty, staff, and trainees know how to operate in their laboratories during this pandemic. Faculty PIs and lab managers should continue to be responsible for ensuring that everyone in the lab, including new personnel, are adequately trained and are following our guidance, and have places to work and take breaks that are 6 ft from others. Plans, or revisions to plans, no longer need to be submitted to the school or department for review and approval. Other aspects of the plans that were initially included in the guidance can be de-emphasized or removed, including items like directional arrows in labs and hallways.

Vaccinations:
COVID-19 vaccinations are still voluntary. Not all of our personnel are vaccinated and the city and county have not relaxed their mandates for organizations or businesses that have achieved certain vaccination rates. CDC guidance on interactions between vaccinated people is only for private, not workplace, interactions. Therefore, on-campus guidelines will not be relaxed based on vaccination status. Washington University strongly encourages all personnel to get vaccinated and is now providing vaccines to all WashU personnel according to state guidelines: covid19.med.wustl.edu/vaccines/washu-employee-student-vaccination/. Email covidvaccine@wustl.edu or consult occupational/student health or your physician if you have questions regarding COVID-19 vaccinations.

Self-Screening:
All personnel should continue to self-screen daily before coming to campus using the website screening.wustl.edu/symptom-screener and follow their campus guidelines at covid19.med.wustl.edu/working-on-campus/campus-access-screening/ and covid19.wustl.edu/health-safety/daily-self-screening/.

Personnel:
There are no COVID-19 specific restrictions on the types of personnel that can work in the lab, providing there is sufficient space for them to work with 6ft physical distancing. Until schools and daycares are operating at near normal hours, faculty/PIs should continue to be sensitive to the scheduling needs of our laboratory personnel and should provide sufficient time for personnel in their laboratories to modify their schedules due to this new guidance.

Travel:
Non-essential university sponsored travel is still suspended. Exceptions are made for essential, research-related travel: covid19.wustl.edu/operations/travel