Updated Guidance on Animal Experiments During COVID-19 Pandemic

After a ramp-down of research activities during the COVID-19 pandemic, investigators who use animal models are very eager to ramp-up their studies. The following guidelines are designed to meet the requirements of the University and local, state, and Federal requirements while at the same time protecting the health and welfare of both University faculty and staff and our animal population.

Requirements for entering any building with a DLAR facility, social distancing and wearing of personal protection equipment (PPE) mandated by the University must be followed. These include wearing a facemask at all times (except when eating); obeying elevator capacity limits; frequent handwashing; maintaining a distance of 6 ft between workers and not coming to work if a person has COVID-19 symptoms such an elevated temperature, coughing, and shortness of breath.

For the purposes of this document, close contact is defined as being within 6 ft of someone for 15 minutes or longer. This is based on current CDC guidelines (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/guidance-risk-assesment-hc...) and may change if the guidelines change.

To follow University, State and Federal guidelines for working during this pandemic crisis, the following procedures for restarting animal research will be put in place:

  1. Personnel will be required to follow all PPE instructions located throughout each facility (which can vary from one room to another). Personnel-provided face coverings must be worn in public corridors outside of the animal facility. Disposable ear-loopsurgical/procedure masks must always be worn in the animal facility. Mask reuse within select areas of the animal facility is highly encouraged to conserve PPE supplies. Masks should be reused in ABSL-1 rodent and aquatic holding rooms, and ABSL-1 non-holdingrooms when animal manipulations are not required. Masks must not be reused in ABSL-1 non-rodent holding rooms where animals are handled, or husbandry procedures performed and ABSL-2 holding rooms (all species. Please note that face shields may be sterilized and reused in some facilities.
     
  2. To maintain social distancing requirements, fewer personnel can be present at one time in individual animal facility housing and procedure rooms. It is vital that we protect both DLAR and laboratory staff from possible infection. Exposure of DLAR staff resulting in self-quarantine would significantly impact the ability of DLAR to maintain a sufficient workforce necessary to take care of the animals. We simply must take the appropriate precautions to ensure that we have enough DLAR staff. All procedure rooms and rodent housing rooms will be placed on an on-line scheduler (https://schedule.dlar.pitt.edu) and investigators will have to reserve time in these rooms to work with the animals. Rooms can be reserved every day of the week. The number of reservations allowed at one time in a room will be based on the number of work-stations available and the size/design of the room following the guidance of one person / 150 sq.ft and maintaining 6 ft distance between work stations. DLAR will block out times in each room required to take care of and maintain the animals. We have revised our work schedule extending it from a normal 5-day work week with a smaller staff on weekends to a 7-day work week. This will make the weekly time required by DLAR staff in housing rooms to be spread out from 5 to 7 days, freeing as much time as possible in these rooms for laboratory staff. This will also result in more DLAR staff available during the weekends. Animal emergencies take precedence. If there is an animal emergency requiring the use of a facility room, anyone currently using that room must suspend their activities to allow veterinary services personnel to access the room.
     
  3. Large animal (non-rodent mammals) housing rooms may be entered without advance dreservation, but occupancy requirements for the room must be respected. Scheduling of large animal surgical facilities should follow standard procedures (not changed due to theCOVID-19 pandemic).
     
  4. Unlike research laboratories, DLAR facilities can only be used for a limited time per day to protect the health and welfare of the animals. The light cycle in most DLAR housingrooms is lights on from 7am – 7pm and lights off from 7pm – 7am. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated restricted personnel density in individual rooms, if laboratory staff needed to enter the facilities after 7pm it was viewed as an occasional issue, not occurring repeatedly or daily in all housing rooms. However, with the restriction on the number of staff that can work in individual rooms and University directives for faculty to consider having their staff work in shifts (which could increase the number of staff working past 7pm in many laboratories), there is a concern that access to DLAR facilities and animals will increase significantly during evening and late evening hours. In order to protect the animals, DLAR facilities will no longer be accessible during the lights off cycle(7pm – 7am) unless scientifically justified. Exceptions are RBL (6am – 6pm) and Aquatics (8am – 10pm). Entering the animal facilities during the dark cycle (7pm – 7am) interrupts the circadian rhythms of the animals and can negatively affect their health (and thus experimental data). Deleterious effects due to disruption of circadian clocks is well known. The dark cycle is also the time when rodents breed and entry into rodent housing rooms during this period can disrupt breeding. Faculty are encouraged to arrange staff shifts for individuals who must work with animals to shifts occurring during 7am – 7pm. Exemptions for facility access can be obtained by emailing requests with justifications to the DLAR Director (Frank Jenkins, Ph.D. fjenkins@pitt.edu). Failure to follow these instructions may result in the individual losing access to all DLAR animal facilities.
     
  5. In situations where social distancing (greater than 6 ft) cannot be maintained due to required animal procedures, and close contact is maintained for greater than 15 minutes, face shields and surgical face masks will be required (plus any additional PPE required for a particular area or experimental procedure). This includes procedures such as animal surgeries and working with large animals. The names of all individuals who were in close contact must be logged in staff member’s close contact logging sheet, so the University can perform contact tracing if a close contact subsequently tests positive for COVID-19. The principal investigator of the study is responsible for ensuring that their personnel maintain contact logs. For rooms that require N95 respirators and face shields or PAPRs (powered air purifying respirator), social distancing is not required provided everyone wears this type of respirator.
     
  6. Each procedure and housing room in the animal facility will have a sign outside the door indicating the room’s maximum occupancy. All personnel must adhere to these occupancy requirements. This includes individuals working at a transfer station or biological safety cabinet and staff entering a room briefly to check on of the welfare of an animal, remove a rodent box to take to a procedure room, etc. Prior to entering a room, personnel must verify that the room has not reached max occupancy. If it has, then they must wait to enter the room until someone has left. Individuals who enter a room to check on an animal or collect a specific cage must maintain 6 ft distancing and ensure any close contact (e.g.,transiently passing another person) lasts less than 15 minutes. Exceptions to the maximum occupancy rule are surgical suites and large animal rooms where multiple staff may be required to manage a large animal. In these cases, as described above, additional PPE (face and eye protection) will be required to reduce possible exposure and close contacts lasting more than 15 minutes must be recorded in each individual’s contact log.
     
  7. Animal orders may be placed through CAMS once the faculty member has their research plan approved by the Senior Vice Chancellor for Research and the building housing their research lab has been opened for research. Animal orders may be placed one week in advance of the research lab building opening date provided that the faculty member’s research plan has been approved. Animal orders should be limited to the minimal number of animals required for critical experiments since access to the animal facility will be restricted. For each facility, there is a finite number of animals that can be received each week due to the amount of time required to place the animals in an appropriate cage. This limit is due to the amount of time that will be reserved each week in the facility for animal shipments (to allow more time for faculty and staff to access the facilities). All animal orders will be reviewed by DLAR and scheduled for delivery at the next available time slot. If rodent orders are received in the afternoon, the animals will be maintained in the shipping container overnight and placed in appropriate caging the following morning to prevent DLAR from reserving additional housing room time in the afternoons. Acclimation per IACUC policy (https://www.aro.pitt.edu/aro/sd/Doc/0/R7SQD74GQ384B7IMPC6R29UGFF/Acclima...) begins when the animals are uncrated and placed intoi ndividually ventilated cages. This may extend the time before rodents shipped to the facility can be utilized.

The DLAR will monitor compliance with these procedures. The DLAR Director will reach out to the faculty member responsible for a study if personnel listed on their protocol fail to follow these mitigation procedures for COVID-19, fail to use scheduled space, or do not equitably share space with other investigators. If resolution cannot be obtained after speaking with the faculty member, the Director will contact their Departmental Chair and, if necessary, their Dean. 

To reduce the amount of time required to be in DLAR facilities, investigators that currently breed rodents are strongly encouraged to consider enrolling in the Off-Site Breeding Program at Charles River Laboratories (program description is under construction and will be posted very soon atwww.dlar.pitt.edu). Depending on the size of the rodent colony, colony management can require a significant amount of time in the animal facility. Enrollment in the off-site breeding program will remove the need to spend time in the facilities managing the breeding and allow more time for experimental procedures. 

The assistance of each investigator is needed to aid in prioritizing animal studies, so all investigator groups can restart their animal research programs. Investigators must prioritize their animal research since accessibility to DLAR facilities will be limited due to the personnel density restrictions and a 12 hr / day working window.