Returning to the Lab Amid COVID-19: Tips to Manage the Transition to Reopening | Corning

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Spring was a quiet time for labs. Experiments were put on pause. Researchers went home. Science seemed to precariously depend on local and state stay-at-home orders.

Researchers are slowly returning to the lab, but there's ramp-up work ahead of them. Reopening a lab takes time and (socially distant) teamwork.

Other labs have reopened, and yours can, too — maybe faster than you think. But it'll take some work. Here's some tips on how to get back to a "new normal" in your lab.

Several Weeks Before

Communicate protocols and purchase safety equipment for everyone.

It takes a lot of planning and, most importantly, a lot of communication to get experiments back on track.

That's what postdocs Michaelle Chojnacki and Mikaeel Young found as they prepped to return to the Dunman Lab at the University of Rochester Medical Center. The Dunman Lab, which investigates ESKAPE pathogens, closed in mid-March, just as COVID-19 first gripped New York.

By mid-May, the team was ready to get back to work, but it took weeks of planning to get there.

"About 10 days before we returned, our department had a Zoom meeting with over a hundred of us from the different labs where they all outlined the guidelines we had to follow, and each lab was allowed to add on additional guidelines," Young said.

Those guidelines included instituting shorter shifts to limit the number of people in the lab, requiring lab workers to wear masks, and disinfecting public areas and equipment before and after use.

The University of Rochester ordered masks and Environmental Protection Agency-registered disinfectants in bulk and provided each of its labs with a generous allotment. Thanks to the school's foresight, Chojnacki and Young said, the Dunman Lab never had problems procuring personal protective equipment or cleaning products.

A Week or Two Before

Clean everything, discard expired reagents, and restock supplies.

Now's the time to take disinfecting to a whole new level. Clean surfaces and equipment thoroughly to ensure safe working conditions. Set up hand sanitizer and wipes stations throughout the lab. Remove any items that are likely to be contaminated, like shared writing utensils.

Check any reagents that were left in the lab. If they've expired, discard them safely and promptly. Some substances, such as peroxide-forming solvents, can auto-oxidate — at which point they're a fire risk. Even nonexpired reagents could have been affected by changes in humidity, temperature, or exposure to light, air, or other substances.

Check that instruments that were shut down are still functional. If they aren't, find out more about your lab's rules regarding instrument service providers onsite.

Inventory-wise, take stock of your supplies and equipment, then make a shopping list for your return. It might be smart to double up on some supplies, such as pipettors and benchtop equipment, to minimize shared use and support social distancing. And make sure to order what you need well ahead of when you'll need it. Given the increased demand for lab supplies nationwide, some suppliers might have back orders weeks deep.

After Reopening

Practice courtesy and social distancing.

When Chojnacki and Young returned to the lab, the researchers had a whole new awareness of their physical space.

"We pretty much just stay apart," Chojnacki said. "If there's someone crossing our path or using a common space, we'll just wait until they walk by. We've just been hyperaware of spacing."

For the most part, the Dunman Lab's projects have been conducive to that new way of working, but the researchers have run in to situations where social distancing doesn't always work.

"We have a new core confocal microscope that we'd like to get trained on to start using, but they're not doing in-person trainings at this time because there's no way to maintain distance," Young said. "We're still trying to figure it out."

Many labs may face similar challenges. Young's advice? Find workarounds.

"We're now considering whether we can pass samples to someone who has training on the equipment," he said. "We don't want to wait months before our samples can be imaged."

Staying on Your Toes

Even after returning to the lab, scientists might need to plan for it to close again. Though the Dunman Lab is in New York, where COVID-19 cases are trending down, as of mid-July, other states, such as Texas and Arizona, have seen surges. The researchers have kept tabs on those developments and are making contingency plans. If the Dunman Lab needs to close again, researchers will shift their focus to projects they can complete at home, such as writing grants.

"We're prioritizing what we need to do over the next four weeks," Chojnacki said. "If we do have a spike in New York and we're shut back down again, we're estimating we'll have about that time to wrap up and plan for another transition to at-home work."

No one wants that, Chojnacki added, but the extra quarantine time does have its benefits.

"As researchers, it's hard sometimes to see the forest through the trees," she said. "So just being at home has allowed me to focus on other skill sets, like writing grant proposals and manuscripts, and thinking about the big picture of our projects. Prioritizing not the nitty-gritty experiments but being more creative and coming up with bigger questions and better ways to address them — that's been extremely valuable for me."