Letter from Whitehead Institute Director David Page on Reopening (5/27)

The following letter was sent by Whitehead Institute Director David Page on May 27, 2020.

Dear fellow members of the Whitehead Institute community,

I am writing to provide an overview of plans for Phases I and II of the return to more normal levels of on-site research activity at Whitehead Institute, and to invite you to participate in an upcoming community-wide meeting on the subject.

First, I thank each and every member of our community for persevering and doing your best to advance our shared mission during our nearly three months of skeletal in-person operations.  Like me, most of you have been working remotely, and many of you have done so while juggling responsibilities for children, parents, your own health or that of others in your extended families, all while dealing with the mounting uncertainties and painful losses that have been the hallmarks of this Spring.  Our lab groups, our administrative departments, and even those with ongoing access to our facility have had to find new ways of staying connected and focused, and accomplishing tasks, and for this I salute the resilience and creativity that you have all displayed.  I recognize the enormity of the challenges that each of you has faced.

What principles will guide our next steps?  Our objective in increasing in-person research activity at Whitehead Institute is clear: to more effectively pursue our core mission of cutting-edge research and training the next generation.  That said, the ongoing public health crisis demands that our primary concern and priority be the health, safety, and trust of our entire workforce and of all who enter our building, including our vendors.  I ask that you join me in affirming these priorities.

Fortunately, some aspects of COVID biology directly relevant to our reopening have been clarified in the past several months, even in the absence of rigorously controlled prospective studies in humans (studies that would never be approved by an Institutional Review Board).  First, transmission of the virus is from person to person, via aerosols expelled from the nose and mouth.  Second, adherence to straightforward measures – regulating entry to and density within buildings, social distancing, wearing masks, and handwashing – has dramatically reduced transmission within what might otherwise be risky settings, including our neighboring hospitals.  From the outset, we have committed to ensuring that our workplace is safe, and that you can trust Whitehead Institute to keep your health and wellbeing foremost in all planning. 

Recognizing that COVID’s demands on our hospitals and clinics in Eastern Massachusetts have begun to recede, we are preparing to launch Phase I of our return on Wednesday June 3, preceded by a community-wide meeting on Monday June 1 (more about that below).  In Phase I, the building will be open to researchers 96 hours per week: 7 am to 9 pm Monday through Saturday, and 9 am to 9 pm on Sunday, with density in our labs capped at one person per 500 square feet (one person per room, or one person per two bays).  Each of our labs has identified a coordinator who has been working for the past week or two to prepare, for central review and approval, a plan for populating their lab within the guidelines just described.  A simple on-line form for our lab coordinators to use in planning staff schedules has been devised in consultation with the coordinators.  In this way, each lab group is deciding how to divide up the available hours across the course of a day, or the course of a week, with the following caveats or guidelines:

All return to work must be on a voluntary, opt-in basis, without coercion.

Work that can be done remotely should continue to be done remotely, even for those with continuing access to the building.  A corollary here is that we have no immediate or near-term plans for the office workers among us, including Lab Administrators and most members of our central administration, to return to our building.

Individuals at higher risk because of age or underlying medical condition will return during Phase I only upon written justification and approval.

All meetings will be held remotely. 

Anyone with a fever or other symptoms, or with recent contact with an individual suspected or confirmed to be infected, should stay home and, as appropriate, seek medical care.  Our IT group has developed a symptoms questionnaire app that staff will complete each day before leaving home to come to Whitehead Institute.  All individuals entering our building will have their temperature checked via thermal scanner.

Masks will be required at all times in our building; they will be provided by Whitehead Institute.  Gloves, coats, gowns, etc. should be worn when called for by the experiments underway, but are otherwise not needed in what should be a low-risk environment.

Other safety precautions, including protocols for entering the building, elevators, restrooms, traffic flow, food, cleaning, and monitoring the effectiveness of our plans are being finalized in collaboration with Safety Partners, Inc.  In addition, lab coordinators are assembling plans for the safe use of shared rooms, tissue culture rooms, animal rooms, and the like.  These plans and protocols will be rolled out to our labs and to our community prior to June 3. 

Many of you have asked about the readiness of our core facilities to meet the needs of our labs as they reopen.  In response, we have been working to restart our core facilities in a timely manner to support increasing onsite research activity.  Iain Cheeseman has been working closely with core facility heads, and Human Resources, on this task.

I understand that transportation remains a concern to many.  Currently, Whitehead employees can park at any MIT parking lot free of charge, and we expect this to remain the case across the summer.  Lots can be accessed using an MIT ID card.  Interested individuals can contact HR with any questions.

How quickly we progress to Phase II of our return, in which we will cap density at one person per bay and adjust other parameters based on Phase I experience and feedback, will depend, internally, upon how quickly and smoothly our community executes and adapts to Phase I and, externally, upon the evolving course of the pandemic in Eastern Massachusetts.

Many of you may want to hear more about our plans for reopening, and would like an opportunity to ask questions.  With that in mind, I will host a virtual town meeting, to which all members of our community are invited, at 1 pm on Monday June 1.  We will send you the link to the town meeting this weekend.  In the meantime, please email any questions that you would like to see addressed to covid@wi.mit.edu

The days and weeks ahead will require much of each of us, so I thank you in advance for your efforts in preparing for our phased return to work.