Guidance for Onsite Laboratory Research Activities

Updated February 1, 2021

Increasing Onsite Laboratory Research Activities at UCSF

General Principles

The purpose of this interim document is to provide guidance on the partial resumption of onsite laboratory research at UCSF facilities located in the City and County of San Francisco. Whereas these policies apply to all UCSF-affiliated research, sites external to County of San Francisco may have additional or different requirements based on the local situation.

The top priority is public health: not just the health of UCSF personnel, but the health of the city and region. Premature repopulation of our buildings to an unsafe level could cause a rebound in infection rates that would threaten the lives of Bay Area residents and could compromise UCSF's workforce and capacity to provide medical care for COVID-19 patients.

This UCSF plan aligns with current state and local Public Health ‘shelter-in-place’ orders. UCSF leaders have considered these issues in establishing a tentative schedule for gradually increasing laboratory research activities.

Overview of Research Policy to Date during Pandemic

After a brief pause in all research with the March stay-at-home directive, laboratory research activity was phased in gradually so that work practices and overall population density could be closely monitored to promote health and safety. Laboratory activities directly connected to COVID-19 and other essential functions were  phased in first, and animal care (LARC), EH&S, and Facilities Services staff continued to provide essential services and oversight throughout the pandemic.

In Phase 1 of research reopening, a small number of laboratory members were allowed to return onsite at 12.5% density on May 18, 2020. A second phase increased lab population to 25% density on June 8, 2020, and Phase 3 further increased density to 50% for laboratory research on September 17, 2020. In Phase 4, laboratory research density was reduced from 50% to 25% on December 24, 2020, to prepare for an expected post-holiday surge of infections.

Phase 5 Directives

The Office of Research monitors the pandemic situation closely and continuously reassess research density based on our review of our current metrics, discussions with various stakeholders across the UCSF and broader UC research community, and consideration of the active public health guidance for the City and County of San Francisco.

In phase 5, laboratory research density was increased from 25% to 50%, effective January 25, 2021  as a result of a low rate of infections in research laboratories and outstanding safety practices of our researchers as explained in the Office of Research message.  

The UCSF research community must still comply with the public health emergency order imposing a mandatory 10-day quarantine for anyone traveling, moving, or returning to San Francisco from anywhere outside the nine-county Bay Area, except for essential categories of personnel, which has been effective since December 16, 2020. Every effort should be made to work remotely and limit onsite work to essential activities that cannot be accomplished from home.

The Office of Research has developed a document that summarizes density guidelines for UCSF research activities and requirements for quarantining and/or testing under the UCSF quarantine order and travel policy. It is designed to provide quick guidance for different categories of research and personnel, and does not replace the full guidelines and policies implemented by UCSF and the Office of Research.

Current Guidelines for Laboratory Research

UCSF investigators are asked to follow specific directives, as detailed below and summarized in this document. Because laboratory research encompasses a diverse range of modalities and considerations, we understand that these directives do not fit all circumstances – but we ask that faculty keep the health of their lab members and community as their top priority. Please resist the tendency to stretch the rules to squeeze in one more person: think instead about the health of that person and the health of the community.

All laboratory researchers at UCSF must comply with the directives below.

Population density

Each faculty member with an independent research program is allowed the equivalent of one person per 4 normally-used laboratory workstations, so that we allow 50% of our normal laboratory capacity. This directive also applies to labs performing COVID-19 research or other essential functions. As described below, staggered work shifts can be scheduled to allow multiple people to work in sequence. Return to higher density will be considered as soon as the situation allows.

The purpose of this phased approach is not solely to promote physical distancing between people while they work at their benches, but also to minimize density in our buildings as a whole.

Many of our research laboratories are organized in neighborhoods or floors with common equipment rooms, break areas, and entryways. Neighborhood faculty are strongly encouraged to meet and discuss their work plans as a group, to allow the best use of space and to consider plans for minimizing physical interactions in common areas and hallways.

Specific circumstances

  • Faculty with 2 or more workstations in total are allowed one person per two workstations during Phase 5. No lab should have more than one person in a 2-workstation space. If the lab has less than 2 workstations, the PI should negotiate with neighboring labs to share space and use shift work to allow some minimal amount of work to proceed.
  • Many lab members work in space that does not involve conventional workstations (e.g. systems neuroscience, radiological imaging, older labs composed of a labyrinth of small rooms). These labs are allowed one person in the laboratory space normally occupied by two people.
  • Increased laboratory density could lead to an increased risk of disease transmission in small accessory rooms used for cell culture. Rooms containing multiple biosafety cabinets must not be occupied with more than 50-66% of the room’s capacity: one occupied hood in a 2-hood room; 2 occupied hoods in a 3-hood room, and so on. In those cases where two or more people occupy a single small room for extended times, it is critical that every effort is made to minimize interactions and use sufficient PPE. Eye protection, in the form of face shields, is strongly encouraged under these circumstances.
  • In some cases, members of multiple labs in a neighborhood might, at different times, use the same equipment room, cell culture space, or animal room. These people should avoid unnecessary interactions by coordinating or pre-scheduling activities.  
  • Some lab members spend all of their time in animal facilities, cell culture rooms, or other space away from a central lab. These individuals do not count toward the density of the central lab, but the number of people in those locations must be minimized.
  • We understand that some complex experiments, as well as the training of new lab members, require teamwork between at least two lab members. These interactions are allowed when necessary, but should be minimized whenever possible. Physical distancing of 6 feet must be employed whenever possible, together with appropriate PPE.
  • Laboratory safety must continue to be considered during times of low staff density. The UCSF Chemical Hygiene Plan prohibits working alone in a lab unless crosschecks, periodic security guard or coworker checks, or other communication measures are taken. Those working with hazardous materials are encouraged not to work alone and not to work at off hours when fewer lab members are present. Establish a buddy system with someone in a neighboring space or lab, or use check-in/check-out by phone or text with the PI or another laboratory member. 

Additional Health and Safety Considerations

UCSF has established supplemental laboratory safety practices specifically to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission, listed at the end of this document. These and any lab-specific safety practices should be discussed in research group meetings, and questions and feedback are encouraged. If questions or concerns cannot be resolved within the research group, please contact the Chair or Chief Administrative Officer of the department or ORU. Graduate students can contact Associate Dean for Graduate Programs Elizabeth Silva, and postdoctoral fellows can contact Assistant Dean for Postdoctoral Scholars Gabriela Monsalve. The UCSF Office of Environment, Health and Safety (EH&S) is also available to evaluate any specific health or safety concerns, and to provide guidance.

Our strategies aspire to safeguard equity across diverse individuals.

Scheduling and coordination of work hours

To allow multiple lab members to sequentially occupy the allotted space, labs should develop calendar systems to schedule work shifts throughout the day and on weekends, bearing in mind that safety is a particular concern for people working alone late at night. The structure of these schedules and the length of shifts can be flexible, depending on the type of experiment and the needs of the lab. Currently, labs in operation at UCSF have shifts ranging from 3 to 12 hours in length. Another option is for specific lab members to reserve certain days of the week. Lab members should understand that their time in the lab is limited and they have to make the most of it. Furthermore:

  • Lab members should communicate openly and often (by text or other messaging systems) to coordinate and adjust schedules as necessary and to be sure that they avoid each other. Everyone should complete work within their shift and not work during others’ shifts.
  • Lab members should plan ahead to maximize the use of their limited bench time, and they should do their notebook updating and other desktop activities when they return home.
  • Lab members should help their labmates by doing minor tasks and experiments that will reduce the need for others to come to the lab.
  • Each lab member’s bench and desk space is private and should not be used by other lab members, so that it can be viewed as a safe space free of contamination.  

Support staff, core facilities, and delivery of supplies

Increased density of laboratory research requires additional staff for glass washing and other tasks, as well as for the core facilities, such as flow cytometry and imaging facilities, that are needed for certain experiments. It will also be necessary to increase the flow of supplies into our buildings. There may be delays in the reactivation of core facilities as they adjust to the new demands, and there are likely to be delays in ramping up some supply lines. Furthermore, these added services will lead to increased population density and physical interactions. The numbers of support staff should be kept to the minimum wherever possible.

Animal Research

All animal research activities must occur as detailed in the approved IACUC protocol, and all LARC and IACUC policies and procedures must be followed to ensure appropriate animal welfare. As you prepare to increase experimental activities, consider levels of staffing and resources needed to adhere to these requirements. If animals cannot be monitored and overseen as detailed in the approved protocol and required for approved lab housing, the associated activities should not resume until appropriate personnel and resources are available. Increased density could increase risk of infection in small animal care rooms, where laboratory staff often share the space with LARC staff or other researchers from different laboratories. In these cases, it is important that all room occupants consider others’ health and do their part to minimize interactions and use appropriate PPE.

Monitoring compliance

Based on good compliance with current research shutdown policies, we are confident that faculty, trainees, and staff understand the importance of these policies and will strive to operate their labs accordingly. However, compliance checks by EH&S staff and others will be used to identify laboratories where there is inappropriate density or lack of distancing and protective measures. In these cases, faculty will be required to modify staff schedules or take other measures to minimize risk of transmission.

Lab members are empowered and encouraged to report recurring noncompliant practices to the PI of the noncompliant lab or to their own PI. Neighboring PIs should then make every effort to resolve the problem locally if possible. If safety deficiencies are not resolved locally in a timely fashion, the issue will be escalated to the appropriate department chair, dean, or research oversight committee for swift correction. Other options for initiating an evaluation of unresolved safety concerns are by emailing EH&S ([email protected]), through anonymous reporting on the EH&S website or through an Improper Governmental Activity (“Whistleblower”) Report.

Health and Safety Protocols for Working Onsite

An increase in the population density in our buildings comes with health risks, and we will need to be more vigilant than ever in seeking to mitigate these risks. All personnel must adhere to UCSF Protocols for Working Onsite, including but not limited to physical distancing, face covering, hand hygiene etc.

Beginning May 18, 2020, UCSF has employed a Conversa Daily Health Screen tool which asks questions to determine if an employee or student is cleared to be onsite each day. The online tool can be accessed via mobile phone or home computer as follows:

  1. Text "Screen" to 83973 (easiest) or 
  2. Access site via https://www.ucsfhealth.org/daily-health-screening and click “Take Screener” on a computer or web-enabled phone

Each person needs to receive clearance prior to entering a UCSF building, ideally 2-4 hours before arrival. 

Furthermore:

  • If a lab member feels any signs of illness, no matter how mild, they must not come to work or perform any work in lab areas, and should leave immediately for their residence or to a location directed by their healthcare provider. COVID-19 testing is available to all UCSF employees who have symptoms of illness; contact the COVID-19 hotline at (415) 514-7328.
  • All individuals working or learning at UCSF who test or have tested positive for COVID-19 at an outside facility must self-report the positive COVID-19 test result to either UCSF Occupational Health Services (OHS; for faculty, staff, trainees, and volunteers) or UCSF Student Health and Counseling Services (SHCS; for students).