Amid Praise and Concern, UNC Reopens Research

CORONAVIRUS

By Rudy Juliano

UNC has reopened its research operations amid general praise but with some concerns, particularly about insufficient testing and the planned full campus opening.

Following the strict lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the university resumed its significant research operations June 1, with detailed guidelines to promote safety. History professor Lloyd Kramer, the chair of the UNC Faculty Council, said he felt that the process has been carefully managed and that many researchers want to get back to work.

Kramer said he had not received any negative communications from faculty specifically about the resumption of research.

UNC “did a lot to ally my concerns,” said Robert Nicholas, a professor of pharmacology in the School of Medicine who has reopened his research lab. He said he is relatively comfortable with the guidelines the university has enacted.

A key feature of those guidelines is limiting research laboratories to 50 percent capacity. For example, in School of Medicine buildings there will be two work shifts, from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., and then 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., with half of the workforce present during each shift.

All researchers must self-monitor their health status daily, wear masks while at work, use hand disinfectant regularly and maintain six feet of distance from others. All multi-user equipment must be wiped down before and after use.

The use of elevators and of common rooms is discouraged and all lab meetings must be held virtually. UNC will provide masks and sanitizer to researchers. In addition, UNC housekeeping will clean and disinfect shared areas several times daily. 

While Nicholas said he is relatively comfortable with the guidelines, he pointed out that a potential weak point lies in training new students or postdoctoral fellows. Lab training, Nicholas said, is very much a hands-on activity and it will be difficult to train while maintaining social distancing.

Postdoctoral fellows do much of the day-to-day lab research under the supervision of their faculty mentors. Barkha Yadav, a postdoc in psychology and neuroscience, said the situation varied among departments but “my department takes strict measures to keep everyone safe.”

Lucas Aponte Collazo, who is working on his Ph.D. in the lab of pharmacology Prof. Lee Graves, said at first he was concerned about safety issues but was now reassured.

“Pharmacology has done a good job,” he said. Scheduling so that researchers don’t overlap, he said, has reassured him and his supervisor has told everyone not to feel pressure if they are concerned about returning to work.

The new schedule, however, along with researchers trying to minimize exposure by spending shorter times in the lab, means that “a three-day experiment might take six days,” said Raquel Martinez Chacin, also a graduate student in pharmacology.

Another concern Yadav had was parking, since postdocs usually cannot afford on-campus parking and many have been concerned about using public transit. UNC, however, has guaranteed free parking for postdocs and graduate students during the summer.

“This kicks the decision of how to get students to campus at the start of the academic year down the road,” Nicholas said, “but at least the summer is taken care of.”

Martinez Chacin remains concerned that people were not tested for COVID-19 prior to starting lab work and that there still doesn’t seem to be a concerted plan for testing.

Initially there was discussion of testing all research personnel before reopening labs, and then retesting a sixth of the workers each week thereafter. According to faculty members, this idea seems to have been abandoned and there are now only vague plans for voluntary COVID-19 surveillance.

Maria DeGuzman, a professor of English and comparative literature who is also a member of the UNC chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said more than 600 UNC instructors had signed a petition demanding that the university test all staff, students and faculty for the virus that causes COVID-19 upon their return to campus and develop a rigorous plan that requires regular and ongoing testing.

To DeGuzman, and many other faculty, major problems would come with the resumption of teaching. She felt that UNC had not provided enough detail in its overall plans for reopening, particularly with regard to testing and contact tracing.

DeGuzman also pointed out that the UNC reopening has health implications for the town of Chapel Hill, with large numbers of employees and students returning to campus.

The petition from faculty also demands that:

  • No instructor be required to teach in person and that no instructor be required to disclose personal health concerns
  • All members of the campus community be required to wear masks and practice physical distancing in classrooms and public settings

Kramer, the faculty council chair, acknowledged that there was more concern among the faculty about the planned resumption of on-campus teaching beginning Aug 10 since that would involve contact with large numbers of students.

When asked about UNC’s policies to accommodate employees who had a high risk for severe illness or were very concerned about their health, Kramer indicated that it might be more difficult for UNC to be accommodating than for a private institution like Duke, since Caronia has to adhere to state personnel policies.

However, he believes that UNC leaders will respond with flexibility to individual concerns.

Rudy Juliano is a professor emeritus of pharmacology at UNC and a member of the executive board of Friends of Local Journalism, the publisher of The Local Reporter.

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