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,
Since March, we’ve witnessed COVID-19 spreading throughout the globe, claiming more than 300,000 lives in the U.S. and 1.6 million worldwide to date. Dangerously high spikes have pushed our healthcare infrastructure to its limits while simultaneously throwing local economies and school systems into crisis mitigation mode. COVID’s toll has been no less severe emotionally and mentally, and we’re likely to see the ramifications of that stress for many months to come.
And yet this morning — nearly nine months to the day when our campus first closed in response to a growing novel coronavirus threat in Texas — frontline healthcare staff at UT have begun receiving Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.
This is a monumental day for us, not only because it signals a path forward but also because we celebrate the achievements and contributions of those in our research community who have helped make this moment possible. In what has quickly become UT lore, Molecular Biosciences Associate Professor Jason McLellan, graduate student Daniel Wrapp, and postdoctoral fellow Nianshuang Wang discovered the virus’ spike protein structure, one of the critical components to developing an effective vaccine. And that vaccine, as of 8 a.m. this morning, is now being distributed to Phase 1A recipients right here on campus.
Without a doubt, this is a triumph for the College of Natural Sciences, but this success represents the core of each of us as researchers no matter our field. Years of dedication and perseverance, small wins often followed by not-so-small setbacks, all with the aim of finding an answer to a persistent question our predecessors willed us to ask. We are part of an institution of the first class, and today is all of ours to celebrate.
We should also be celebrating making it through this semester, but before we head out for the extended winter break, I want to share a few important updates and reminders.
COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution at UT
As you’ve likely heard by now, initial doses of the vaccine will be allocated first for critical populations — such as healthcare and other essential workers and older adults — as indicated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Texas Department of State Health Services. All UT students, faculty, and staff will be able to receive a vaccine once there is sufficient supply to meet demand. Everyone is highly encouraged to be vaccinated, and we will all be notified as soon as those supplies are available. In the meantime, please refer to the Protect Texas Together website for updates, FAQs, and information about equitable vaccine distribution.
Research Operations Remain at RL3
Even though there has been an increase in community-acquired COVID-19 cases in Austin, we still haven’t seen clusters of cases among researchers on campus, fortunately. For that reason, we will remain at RL3. We will continue to monitor conditions daily, however, and we will communicate any modifications to our current level rapidly should that become necessary.
Staying at RL3, though, will require strictly adhering to your team’s established shift times and cohort schedules. Please refer to the Research Restart Plan or speak with your associate dean for research if you have questions.
Updated UT and CDC Quarantine Guidelines
On December 2nd, the CDC updated its guidelines regarding the number of days a person must isolate if they’ve been in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19. UT will implement these new guidelines as follows:
- Asymptomatic and close contacts of cases traced by UT will be asked to quarantine for 10 full days following their last date of exposure to an infectious case.
- Asymptomatic UT students, staff, and faculty contacts will be given the option to leave quarantine after 7 days if they:
- Get a test for COVID-19 on campus; and
- Get that COVID-19 test on or after day 6 of their quarantine; and
- Test negative.
Please note that both the 10-day and conditional 7-day quarantine alternatives, while acceptable, have a higher transmission risk than the 14-day quarantine period previously recommended by the CDC.
Our Research Restart Toolkit has been revised accordingly, so please continue to refer to our restart documents for any questions you may have. Remember that the toolkit also provides instructions for notifying Occupational Health Program (OHP) if you or someone on your team, as a supervising PI, is tested for COVID-19. OHP will work directly with University Health Services (UHS) and Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) to determine next steps, which may include contact tracing and room decontamination.
PIs and supervisors should continue to accommodate their students’ and research staff’s desire to self-quarantine by permitting them to work remotely as needed for 7-to-10 days after returning from travel.
Get Tested Now and When You Return
UT will offer PCT through 2 p.m. on December 21st and will resume testing on January 5th. If you haven’t done so already, please make an appointment to be tested, either at UT or at an alternative community testing site, before you travel — if that’s part of your plans. And please check online in early January to make another appointment to be tested again when you return to campus next month.
The Perry-Castañeda Library will close for the winter holiday on Wednesday, December 23rd and reopen Monday, January 4th. Be sure to check online to view available services and operating hours for individual libraries.
SURE Walk will be available through 2 a.m. on December 17th while Night Rides will continue to operate through the winter break. Check the webpages for hours and other details, and please consider using one of these services if you are on campus after dark.
Again, congratulations on making it through this semester. These months have tested us all both personally and professionally. I know that when you’ve shown up for your team and research colleagues, you were also showing up for your students, families, and friends while trying to meet your own needs with what little time and energy were left. I see what you’re juggling because I’m right there with you. Please take time for yourselves this holiday, no matter where the coming days find you, to rest and reset. We’ve come so far, and there’s still a way to go, but we can do this.
Hook ’em. 🤘
Alison R. Preston, Ph.D.
Interim Vice President for Research