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Duke Researchers To Begin Slowly Returning to Their Labs, With Masks

Larry Carin says phased and carefully controlled re-start could begin as soon as next week

Part of the Hand washing, social distancing & behavior Series
As Duke research labs reopen, they will look different. New public health rules will require masks and 15-foot spacing between workers. (photo: Jared Lazarus)
As Duke research labs reopen, they will look different. New public health rules will require masks and 15-foot spacing between workers. (photo: Jared Lazarus)

In a townhall meeting conducted via Zoom on Wednesday afternoon, Vice President for Research Larry Carin outlined how and when Duke’s research labs will begin to reopen – some perhaps as early as next week.  

The carefully controlled and phased restart of laboratories will begin with the Levine Science Research Center and the Chesterfield Building in downtown Durham. The School of Medicine also will be bringing three of its research buildings -- Medical Science Research III, Nanaline Duke and JA Jones -- back online at the same time under the same sorts of distancing and scheduling protocols Carin described.

“We’re optimistic about next week,” Carin said, but the availability of new hand sanitizer stations is going to be one of the limiting factors, he said. “There’s a lot of work to be done.”

He introduced a set of new principles and protocols to ensure safety and compliance with public health practices, including the mandatory use of face masks at all times.  

Re-opened labs will be run on staggered shifts with lab sanitizing protocols between shifts; each lab will be required to maintain 15-foot spacing between workers; only one person per bay and nobody immediately in front or behind a worker’s bench. Only one person can ride an elevator at a time. Laboratory meetings and discussions will need to be held with virtual collaboration tools like Zoom, Carin said.

Principal investigators will be asked to identify which workers have to be in the lab and then to put them into staggered shifts to maintain the spacing requirements. Keycard access to reopened buildings will be closely monitored to ensure that lab workers come and go on the agreed schedule. Workers will also complete a short, confidential daily questionnaire about their health before coming to work. Principal investigators will be responsible for ensuring their lab follows the new protocols, but there may also be some spot-checking ‘audits,’ Carin said.

“I know this sounds kind of like ‘Big Brother,’ and I apologize for that,” Carin said. “We’re doing this for everybody’s best interest, to assure safety for all.”

The new protocols were designed in collaboration with infectious disease experts by Carin and research deans George Truskey of Engineering, Mohamed Noor of A&S and Nicholas Cassar of the Nicholas School. Colin Duckett, dean of basic research in the Medical School, played a leading role in developing these principles, working closely with Duke’s infectious disease doctors, Carin said. As the plans were developed, Duke also compared notes with other research universities who are tackling the same problems, he said.

Carin repeatedly stressed that only workers who have to be in the lab and cannot work any other way will be allowed back, and then only in limited numbers and staggered shifts. Visitors, guests and pets are prohibited.

“This won’t be business as usual, it’ll be very different,” Carin said from his home office. “The people who are coming back are the people who absolutely have to be here,” he said. “Office staff are not coming back right away, and that includes many of the faculty.”

Noor, who is the dean of natural sciences for Arts & Sciences, said he would be consulting closely with department chairs and individual investigators to fine-tune the plans for their needs. “I’ll ask them what works for your research, in terms of getting things done and also keeping people healthy.”

Truskey said that labs which share equipment are going to have to work out scheduling and use to stay within the distancing guidelines.

Carin said the process of re-starting labs under these new rules will take an extended period of time. “This is going to play out for a while, and we’re going to monitor as we go with the goal of keeping everyone healthy.”

For More Details: Please see Dr. Carin's Slide Deck ; School of Medicine guidance