Reopening Rockefeller

Natural Selections Editorial Board

At 5 p.m. on March 18th, 2020, The Rockefeller University shut down its campus due to the impact of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic on the New York City area. A reduced staff maintained the most essential operations, such as security and power, while the vast majority of research was halted. Only research directly related to COVID-19 was permitted to continue. Four days later, Governor Cuomo issued an executive “New York State on PAUSE” order closing all non-essential businesses and canceling all non-essential gatherings in the state. 

For more than two months, the majority of Rockefeller employees and researchers have stayed home in various levels of isolation and quarantine. Our collective efforts to stem the spread of the virus appear to have had an impact. The Regional Monitoring Dashboard, which evaluates COVID-19 spread and pandemic readiness, shows that nine of New York’s ten regions have met the requirements to begin phased reopening. Even though New York City has not yet satisfied the requirements for reopening, it is hard to keep ourselves from projecting into the future and imagining what a new normal will look like for Rockefeller.

On May 4th and 5th, Rockefeller University President Rick Lifton hosted a virtual Town Hall for students and postdocs to discuss the campus shutdown and address questions from the community. While there are few specifics regarding exactly how or when Rockefeller will reopen, Lifton was able to speak to some common concerns. Natural Selections also reached out to others in the administration for comment.

How has the shutdown affected Rockefeller University?

In the midst of the shutdown, a small cohort of Rockefeller scientists have continued their benchwork. These scientists are studying COVID-19, in keeping with Rockefeller’s long-standing tradition of conducting “science for the benefit of humanity.” Although, according to Lifton, there are only about 125 individual researchers physically working on campus, they represent twenty laboratories studying everything from COVID-19 prophylaxis and therapeutics to understanding the course of infection and disease severity.

However, for many scientists, the Rockefeller University shutdown dramatically decreased the amount of research being done. Core facilities are closed and non-COVID-19 bench experiments are prohibited. Graduate students have expressed concerns that the shutdown may impede their progress, delaying their ability to meet milestones for a timely graduation. Lifton addressed these concerns, expressing that the expectations for progress have been adjusted. Sid Strickland, Rockefeller’s Dean of Graduate and Postgraduate Studies, has echoed these sentiments, encouraging students to contact the Dean’s Office to discuss any issues they may have. While there is no blanket policy, it is understood that individual circumstances will vary, and students would not necessarily be expected to meet the same deadlines as were established before the pandemic. “One of the great attributes of Rockefeller is that we are a small institution that can deal with issues on an individual basis,” Strickland said. “We know all of the students personally and care deeply about their well-being. If anything is concerning any student, please reach out to us anytime.” 

Researchers expressed similar concerns regarding the need for extensions in fellowships granted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In the Town Hall with students, Lifton said there was a precedent for this kind of support—in 2008 after the financial crisis, billions of dollars were set aside to help NIH funding recipients. Lifton and others in the Rockefeller administration are now advocating for funds to be similarly allocated.

When should Rockefeller reopen?

Before reopening Rockefeller, Lifton said, we would need evidence of a recovering city. This is in line with Governor Cuomo’s orders that regions are to remain shut down until they have met the seven metrics for reopening according to the Regional Monitoring Dashboard. At the time of this writing, New York City had met four of the seven metrics for reopening, with our hospital and ICU capacity still below 30%. The expectation is that New York City will meet the requirements to begin reopening in the first half of June. Rockefeller will begin restarting non-COVID-19 research activities on June 1st.

The newly formed Rockefeller University Research Restart Committee will evaluate the conditions at Rockefeller and determine exactly how to proceed with a phased-reopening of campus. Strategies for reducing risk to employees include staggering work hours, establishing laboratory capacities, and/or encouraging remote work where possible. While the details of each phase of reopening are unclear, we know that it will not be an immediate return to pre-pandemic operations. Reopening will be incremental, guided by the changing conditions and information.

How will we keep the Rockefeller community safe once we reopen?

Frequent testing of all Rockefeller employees for SARS-CoV-2 would be essential for maintaining the safety of Rockefeller employees as asymptomatic carriers can spread COVID-19. In his Town Hall meetings, Lifton emphasized the need to identify emerging infections, trace contacts, and isolate those affected in order to keep the campus healthy. The university currently has an Abbott point of care instrument and an on-campus test site on the tennis courts. Although testing is currently low-throughput, an aspirational goal is to eventually be able to test all Rockefeller employees twice per week. 

In addition to testing, preventative measures such as mask-wearing, social distancing, and diligent hygiene will be necessary to provide a safe work environment. Lifton said the university will insist on social distancing and has already mandated mask-wearing in all areas, with the exception of private offices occupied by a single person. The Office of Research Support has issued safety guidelines to Heads of Laboratories, each of whom will designate a Research Restart Officer within the laboratory responsible for safety training and enforcement. Amy Wilkerson, Associate Vice President of the Office of Research Support, said that in addition to oversight by the Research Restart Officer, “Security, Plant Operations, and [Laboratory Safety and Environmental Health] personnel, who are regularly in the labs to provide service and support, will also report non-compliance. Failure to comply will result in loss of access to campus.” However, Wilkerson said, “Everyone will be responsible for working safely.” Unsafe working conditions can be reported directly to the relevant supervisor or by emailing restart@rockefeller.edu.

A common concern is how we can maintain six feet between one another in spaces designed to facilitate interactions. The River Campus, for example, is designed so that researchers must walk through multiple laboratories in order to reach their individual workspaces, with laboratory benches and desks clustered together within each laboratory. Even in the older buildings, laboratory bays often position researchers back to back, and common areas feature couches and group seating areas. While these designs were appreciated in the time before COVID-19, they may require some reworking to fit with the new social distancing model. 

Alex Kogan, Associate Vice President of Plant Operations, is working with the Rockefeller administration to address these concerns. “There are many means to reduce risk,” Kogan said, including establishing laboratory capacities and staggering work hours to ensure social distancing. And while laboratories are inherently enclosed spaces, Kogan assured us that Rockefeller’s laboratories are supplied with 100% outside air, exchanged eight to twelve times per hour. Kogan also said that Rockefeller is “looking into spreading out common space furniture, limiting the number of people in break rooms, conference rooms, etc.” But, according to Kogan, the most important factor in ensuring employee safety will be community compliance with COVID-19 safety guidelines issued by the university.

What does Rockefeller’s future look like?

Over the past two months, there has been a massive transition to remote work and virtual meetings. Everything from weekly group meetings, to the Friday Lecture Series, to Rockefeller’s convocation are being held virtually. Although the Zoom format may be a little impersonal to some, it has allowed for continued scientific communication during the shutdown and made some seminars more accessible to our community. While working from home and virtual meetings may have been rare in the past, we expect these will become part of the new normal for many at Rockefeller, even as in-person seminars return. Todd Wells, Lead Media and Design Support Specialist of Rockefeller’s Information Technology Department, spoke with Natural Selections about continuing to offer remote options after the campus reopens. Wells said that “both Caspary and Carson Family Auditoriums are equipped with integrated camera systems that are Zoom and webcast ready, as are many of the conference rooms, especially on the River Campus,” and there are plans to similarly upgrade other campus meeting rooms. “We have already broadcast many events in both formats, even before the lockdown, and we expect this to become much more common as we continue to adapt how we host events in response to the pandemic.”

While teleconferencing and remote work can help to reduce the spread of the virus, working from home can be challenging for employees with families, especially those with children. Without childcare, working from home or even returning to work may be untenable. Lifton acknowledged that reopening the Child and Family Center (CFC) would be imperative for allowing employees with families to return to work, but there are significant challenges: the CFC typically follows the public school system, which is closed for the remainder of the academic year. In addition, many CFC teachers have their own children to care for, and no childcare available to them. While unresolved, the issue of childcare at Rockefeller is at the forefront of the administration’s mind.

Very little is certain, and nearly everything is subject to change. Every day we have more information about how COVID-19 is affecting our community, and best practices shift with our understanding of the disease. Communication will be critical for ensuring a safe return to research and a healthy future. Rockefeller has demonstrated its commitment to communicating with the campus community, and we are hopeful that the university will continue to prioritise our collective safety as we reopen our campus.

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