The University of Pittsburgh has a plan to bring back undergraduate students to campus starting the second week in August — a plan that could change if coronavirus cases spike.
But many researchers at the university have already been back to work for nearly two months. And seven of those researchers told PublicSource that the university could learn some lessons from the way it reopened its labs.
They said that since the reopening at the beginning of June, communication about post-reopening guidelines from the university has been unclear and inconsistent. The university delegated responsibility for implementing its new safety policies to faculty in the labs rather than sharing a consistent message across departments.
The university instructed lab managers to change their workspaces so that researchers could maintain six feet of social distancing. They are all required to wear masks and have to fill out a survey at the beginning and end of every day that asks about COVID-19 symptoms and who they have been in touch with.
Some researchers PublicSource spoke with are happy about these protective measures but say these measures don’t go far enough and aren’t being fully implemented. They say it’s been hard for people who want a COVID-19 test to get one and note a lack of clear communication on how to report violations.
Nearly all of them said they feel mostly safe in their own labs, with few exceptions. But all seven said they are worried about what’s going to happen when undergraduates return to campus.
In May, more than 60% of faculty who said they had research to go back to, were concerned, very concerned or extremely concerned about doing so safely, according to a survey given by the university. Less than 40% said they were slightly concerned or not concerned at all. The researchers haven’t been surveyed since their labs reopened for nonessential work at the beginning of June, so it’s not clear how widespread these fears are now.
Most of the researchers say continuing their research has the potential to improve or save people’s lives in the future. And the majority said that they hadn’t personally seen major breeches of the new rules, despite their concerns.
Jeremy Berg, the associate senior vice chancellor for science strategy and planning, sent a detailed response to the questions and concerns raised by the researchers interviewed for this story.
“This is an ongoing process and we are constantly learning,” Berg wrote in the response email to PublicSource.
The researchers in this article suggest that the university may not be adhering to its own reopening framework. On July 13, the university announced that it was moving into the “elevated risk” posture, the middle category of reopening outlined in a June 30 email from Chancellor Patrick Gallagher. For researchers, the category is supposed to mean, “[v]irtual work encouraged for research personnel; some permitted on campus.” But all of the researchers in this article described the current approach as more like the most lenient posture, “guarded risk,” when the lead researchers determine who should be on campus.
Karsen Shoger, a research technician in the immunology department, said that before he could return to his lab the first week of June, his supervisor sent him a PowerPoint presentation from the university that was supposed to explain the university’s best practices. But the presentation wasn’t finished. It included several slides that had reminder notes to insert pictures, such as a picture to illustrate the proper technique for removing a mask or how to socially distance in an elevator.
"This is Pitt. The polio vaccine was made here. They developed their own COVID test. They should be innovating and not just doing the bare minimum,” he said. “But instead they are making decisions and not interested in our feedback."
The university said in its statement that lead researchers have been instructed not to pressure people who don’t feel safe to come back. “For those employees who would like to request an accommodation due to their personal health or circumstances, supervisors, deans and department chairs are encouraged to work with employees to find an appropriate accommodation where possible,” the response said.
But one researcher, who runs a lab of more than 10 people, said that her supervisor told them all they needed to be back working full time. She isn’t personally immunocompromised but also doesn’t think the lab is being run safely. She asked that her name not be used in the article to avoid professional repercussions.
She said lab workers will often work 60 or more hours per week. Some workspaces that were formerly supposed to fit four people, are now supposed to only fit two, she said, but a third person will often join them.
“As long as everyone has to work at the same time, people are going to be in each other’s faces,” she said. "It’s impossible to get work done if you’re trying to obey the rules."
She raised her concerns to her supervisor, without satisfactory changes, she said, and wasn’t sure what else she could do, especially because the lab shares equipment with other labs.
“People basically just don’t socially distance,” she said. “I can control when I’m going to walk into a space, but I can’t control when people come into my space.”
Kim Garrett, another science researcher, said she largely feels safe but, because she works in an open-office lab environment without walls separating groups, it’s not perfect. There are narrow hallways where it’s impossible to keep six feet of distance, even if it’s just in passing. She also sees people eating and drinking in the lab, even though it was already against the rules before the pandemic.
She didn’t hear from her department about reopening procedures but instead relied on her direct supervisor.
“I worry some colleagues are being pressured or not being given the full information about what they are supposed to be doing and how they can keep themselves safe,” Garrett said.
Garrett is also worried about transportation as the university opens back up. She’s been biking every day but doesn’t know what she’ll do in the winter. “Riding a bus is really dangerous right now and people who don’t have access to cars or bikes, I don’t know what they’re supposed to do,” she said.
Happy with the new guidelines
Lawrence Andrews, a post doctoral fellow in the immunology department, said that he thinks all of the necessary safety precautions are being followed in the lab he works in.
It’s critical that this work continues, he said, because some researchers are working on COVID-19 research, while others are working on life-saving research such as his own cancer study. The mice colonies at the center of his research had to be maintained even during the worst part of the pandemic, he said.
“I’ve literally published a paper that we started six years ago, and if I had to lose six years worth of work, you then delay that piece of knowledge by half a decade,” he said. “If no one could come in to look after and maintain the mice, you would have to sacrifice all of them.”
Andrews said that in his lab, there is a Google spreadsheet where people can sign up to alternate shifts so not everyone has to be in the lab at the same time. He said the time slots have never filled up.
Matt Demers, who took a new job at one of the university’s biomedical towers on June 1, said that the precautions at Pitt have been even more stringent than at his last job at UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital.
But he’s worried that, because the university is leaving safety decisions up to lead researchers, not every lab will be as careful as his.
Helmet Karim, a research assistant professor of psychiatry, said he thinks it would be safe for him to begin a new study in the fall. The participants would only have to come see him once and they would have PPE. But he too is worried that the university’s response isn’t centralized or consistent.
The university has promised to test 400 people a day, when undergraduates return, and share the results within 24 hours. But for the researchers, Karim said, there hasn’t been a single place to get tested and several colleagues concerned about COVID-19 were only given tests after they complained, he said.
“Considering we’re in the UPMC system as well, it doesn't make sense that there isn’t a designated center,” he said. “Go here, walk in, they’ll give you a test. That seems like something that should be happening as we speak but it’s not.”
The university said that the researchers with symptoms should reach out to their medical providers before going to campus or going to get tested.
All three of these researchers who said their current work environments have been very safe, are worried about what’s going to happen when undergraduate students return. The university said in its statement that all undergraduates who work on campus, including in labs, would be required to take mandatory training and familiarize themselves with the new lab rules. All undergraduates will be required to undergo a 14-day quarantine before attending classes.
“The problem is that even if a student does socially distance, there will always be some students that go out and party, drink and get infected, be asymptomatic and bring that to a classroom,” Karim said.
Danger and risk management
One research administrator who works directly with senior research officials at the university said the administration must have taken into account the possibility that some students or staff will get sick and some people may die. She asked that her name not be used for fear of reprisal.
“The administration almost certainly knows some of the community is going to be severely affected—either serious health issues or even death—and they’re still charging forward with all these plans, simply because the university is a money-making machine,” she said.
Between June 26 and July 17, the university reported that 33 students, staff or faculty had tested positive and been on campus within two weeks of testing positive.
Shoger met with Amanda Godley, the vice provost for graduate studies, to share his concerns and she sent him an online form that faculty can fill out anonymously. But he said he hasn’t seen the form publicized.
University officials said this form is not new to COVID-19 and, while they have received some concerns, “There has not been a drastic increase in the number of concerns.”
Shoger thinks the university should’ve reduced the occupancy of the labs back to 1/3 their normal capacity after the recent spike in cases in Allegheny County. The labs had increased their capacity from 1/3 to 2/3 when they opened up at the beginning of June when the number of cases in the county was low.
“This is supposed to be part of their reopening plan," Shoger said. “We’re keeping a really close eye on the numbers and if anything happens we’re going to readjust and keep you safe.”
Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.
This story was fact-checked by Emma Folts.