Research restart and recovery: looking ahead

It is safe to say that COVID-19 has forever changed the workplace and how we go about the day-to-day activities in the vivarium. The past several months have led to many changes within the vivarium and it’s important to note that while research has restarted, the return does not mean business as usual. Decreased staff will continue for some time to alleviate physical distancing challenges within the facility. Social and physical distancing will continue. Personal protective equipment (PPE) will need to be worn at all times, and UofT’s guidelines on next steps will have to be followed rigidly. These changes are in place to ensure that all parties feel comfortable within the vivarium and that research can continue in a safe manner.   

Colony Size 

Labs must maintain their animal colonies at a size that meets their approved research activities and abilities, while avoiding excess animal numbers and aligning with the vivarium’s ability to maintain operations with resources.   

Importance of Sperm Cryopreservation 

Cryopreservation of genetically modified mouse and rat strains serves as a low-cost insurance for rodent colonies, providing protection from genetic drift or a catastrophic loss. Cryopreservation can also be used to archive intermediate genotypes during intercross or backcross breeding or as an economical alternative for sharing strains with collaborators. 

Cryopreserving strains, particularly in lines that are vital to your research and difficult or impossible to reinstate, will also help avoid complete loss of colony lines in the event of a future disaster and/or pandemic. To help determine which lines should be cryopreserved, researchers should prioritize animals and lines that need to be protected. Consider species, uniqueness, recovery/reproduction time, value, vulnerability, manageability, and hazard when determining which animals take precedent.   

Donning Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) 

Face Masks. Face masks protect yourself and others from unknowingly transmitting COVID-19 without apparent symptoms. The use of disposable face masks in all facility spaces is highly recommended. Disposable face masks will be made available at all entry/exit points of the facilities. Provided disposable face masks should be worn by all personnel entering the vivarium and/or core facility when in the presence of others and in public settings where other physical/social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., common work spaces, break rooms, etc.).  The mask is not a substitute for physical and/or social distancing.  Users should aim to use one mask daily to minimize waste as PPE, particularly surgery face mask availability continues to become more difficult.

NOTE: Personal masks will not be permitted for use in the vivarium and/or core facility. Personal masks must be placed in a disposable paper bag and labeled with the users name and date. Personal masks may be retrieved when leaving.     

N95 Respirators. N95 respirators can be reused up to 5 times if not soiled, and may be stored in a paper bag for up to 7 days until reuse, according to EHS. Duke University’s method of decontamination of N95 respirators using Hydrogen Peroxide Vapor (HPV) is currently underway at MSB due to low supply.  

Vendor inventory of N95 respirators is low due to high demand. As a result, it has been difficult to maintain inventory for N95 respirators. Medical face masks are highly recommended. The vivarium has made wearing face masks mandatory. Reuse allowed if the mask is not wet or soiled. 

Gloves. No gloves are to be worn in hallways or common areas. Gloves must only be worn when handling animals or when decontaminating/cleaning. Users must wash hands before and after work. Hand sanitizers will be placed at strategic locations. 

Isolation Gowns. Cloth isolation gowns must be worn when entering the facilities. Soiled gowns will be collected after use in clear autoclave bags and decontaminated prior to laundering. Gowns are not to be worn outside the facilities. Staff have dedicated uniforms which will be laundered onsite. 

Hygiene and Decontamination Practices 

Extra cleaning/disinfection precautions and procedures enforced to minimize the risk to others when using a shared resources. Surfaces that are touched frequently by multiple persons will be disinfected at the start and end of each workday. All shared equipment, collaboration tools, technology (touch pads, phones, laptop plug-ins, etc.) and similar equipment must be disinfected after each use. Cleaning and disinfecting frequently-touched surfaces such as door and cabinet handles, hood buttons, refrigerator and freezer handles, and other highly touched surfaces will be necessary. The vivarium and core facility will maintain a supply of disinfecting products. Researchers must disinfect surfaces they have touched before leaving the vivarium and/or core facility (e.g. BSC, bench top, shared equipment, etc.). 

Hand washing will be required when entering and leaving the vivarium and/or core facility. Hand washing sinks are available in close proximity to the entry/exit doors. In addition, hand sanitizer will be provided at the entrance for application upon entry and exit of the vivarium and/or core facility. Foot disinfection mats are in place at entry/exits to be used instead of shoe covers with the exception of surgery and CL2 spaces. 

Social/Physical Distancing Measures 

Access to the vivarium and/or core facility will be limited to individuals with approval to resume animal research activities. Restricting the number of personnel and establishing workflow processes in vivarial/lab areas will help maintain physical/social distancing. All room reservations/activities scheduled and tracked to minimize personnel interaction and coordination of staff and decontamination procedures. When using common areas or working in the same room it is critically important to observe 6 feet of separation, even when wearing face coverings. Animal care team restructured to allow for adequate staffing during this period while following physical/social distancing measures.  

In conclusion, the upcoming months may introduce continued change in the vivarium but working together to protect ourselves, our colleagues, our animals and our space can help ensure that research continues safely. In short, protecting the facility means temporarily keeping colony sizes reasonable, using PPE to prevent spreading the virus, cryopreserving strains that could be difficult to obtain in the future, washing your hands and decontaminating tools and spaces regularly, and continuing to keep your social and physical distance.

The BSF team will continue to make all efforts to support you now and going forward. We will readily adapt to and communicate any changes that are necessary. 

Look out for our Disaster Planning and Preparedness recommendations in our next newsletter, coming January 2021.