This message has been distributed to all UT employees with Principal Investigator (PI) status, as well as all UT graduate students and postdocs.
Dear PI Colleagues, Graduate Students, and Postdocs,
As we work together to certify that our buildings and spaces can be safely occupied, I want to share some important Research Restart changes with you. This will be a long email, but I ask all of you to read it closely. While this pertains primarily to those working on campus, it’s necessary information for all UT researchers.
Changes to the Research Cohort/Shift Model
Working in close coordination with university leadership and health experts, we have decided to introduce more flexibility to the Research Level 3 cohort and daily shift schedules.
Building-wide research cohorts, each assigned to daily shift schedules, were originally put in place in July 2020 to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission among researchers on campus. The cohorts — together with workforce density limits and masking adherence — resulted in very few cases of COVID-19 within our research community.
While research cohorts have been successful in mitigating viral transmission, I also understand that strict, building-wide cohorts come with disadvantages. Researchers assigned to evening or weekend shifts, for example, might not have the opportunity to interact directly with their supervising PIs or other colleagues who are contributing substantially to their projects. I know this can hamper both collaboration and morale, and therefore it’s difficult to sustain long term.
That’s why, beginning as soon as buildings and lab spaces are certified safe to reopen, each college/school/unit (CSU) may decide for itself whether to continue the cohort model. There are several things to note, however:
- We are staying at Research Restart Level 3. All policies and permitted research activities remain strictly in place.
- A 50% workforce density limit with no more than 1 person per 125 sq. ft. is still in effect at all times.
- New masking guidelines were issued two weeks ago (see below). While not requirements, I strongly urge all of you to follow these recommendations diligently.
- Each CSU is responsible for determining whether to maintain or suspend cohorts. You will receive CSU-specific guidance from your associate dean for research (ADR).
- If a CSU decides to make cohorts voluntary, it then becomes the responsibility of each PI to set their research group’s new schedule, ensuring that the 50% workforce density and square footage limits are adhered to at all times.
- PIs must continue to keep detailed lab and research space occupancy logs (whether digital or physical) for contact tracing purposes. Some CSUs will still require occupancy information to be reported to ADRs. More guidance will come from your ADR.
- Lab operating hours will continue to be 6 a.m. – 2 a.m. daily.
- Meetings should continue to be held virtually.
- All violations of lab density, masking, or social distancing policies should be reported directly to your associate dean for research. ADRs are prepared to enforce these policies.
New Campus Masking Guidelines
Effectively immediately, double masking is strongly recommended. We are asking that you wear a medical-grade (ASTM level 2 or 3) surgical mask with a cloth mask on top when indoors, unless you are alone in a single-occupancy office. (If your research requires a KN95 or N95 mask, continue wearing those during working hours on campus.) Medical-grade masks are available in the STEM stockroom. (Please note: PPE will be charged to the grant or sponsored award for which the PPE is being used, unless the sponsor explicitly prohibits it. If you do not have a grant or other research funds, UT will cover PPE costs for your research projects.)
With the prevalence of new, more contagious coronavirus variants in Austin, it is imperative that you not reuse surgical masks. They are intended for one-time use only and should be replaced daily or if the mask gets damaged or wet. Cloth masks should be washed daily. Please refer to these updated guidelines for more information.
If there are widespread COVID-19 outbreaks on campus, Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) staff may not be able to keep up with the rigorous disinfecting schedule already in place. In that case, labs and research spaces will likely have to be shut down for several days if someone becomes infected. Therefore, it is critically important that everyone adhere to masking guidelines and research density limits.
New Guidance for Quarantine after Exposure
And because one of these more contagious variants could become the dominant strain in Texas, UT is altering its quarantine policies. Effective immediately, if you have been exposed to someone with COVID-19, you are now required to isolate for a full 10 days, even if you yourself test negative for COVID-19 and/or have been vaccinated. Additionally, anyone who has been vaccinated, along with those who have previously tested positive, are still required to quarantine following an exposure if the exposure is within 14 days of receipt of second vaccine or after 90 days post vaccine/test-confirmed infection.
Please review UHS’ updated guidelines and UT’s Testing Guidance document for more information.
Weekly COVID-19 Testing
I also strongly encourage all campus researchers to get tested for COVID-19 weekly, even if you have been vaccinated. The vaccine helps prevent severe, symptomatic COVID-19 cases but may not necessarily prevent infection. Even if you have been vaccinated, you could feel healthy but be capable of spreading the virus. Undergraduate researchers are still required to get tested at least once every two weeks, and PIs are required to enforce this and review test results.
Visit UT’s Proactive Community Testing Program page or the City of Austin COVID-19 website to schedule a test — or talk to your personal healthcare provider. And if you haven’t already downloaded the Protect Texas Together app, please consider doing so. If getting tested on campus, you can use the app to fill out consent forms digitally, which saves time in line.
I realize this email contains a lot of information to process, particularly when we are also working to reopen labs after the winter storm — but I hope these new scheduling options will provide you with more flexibility to get research done. Keep this email handy or bookmark the link at the bottom of this email so you can refer to it again later, if needed.
Alison R. Preston, Ph.D.
Interim Vice President for Research