Words and phrases like “PPE” and “aerosol transmission” weren’t common parts of the vernacular before the pandemic. Now, these ideas are at the forefront as people adapt their activities and behaviors to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
But for the staff at Penn’s Environmental Health and Radiation Safety (EHRS) office, ideas around public health and safety have always been top-of-mind. Now, as researchers continue to safely resume on-campus activities, EHRS’ responsibilities have multiplied. Not only does the office continue to manage the biological, chemical, occupational, environmental, and radiation safety programs here at Penn, it is also the campus community’s first line of defense against COVID-19.
Health and safety on campus
EHRS has two main branches: Environmental Health, whose staff manages biosafety, occupational safety, environmental compliance, and industrial hygiene, and Radiation Safety, which oversees the safe use of radiation in laboratories and in clinical areas across the Penn Health System. On a typical day, EHRS makes sure that labs and clinical areas are appropriately using and disposing of hazardous materials; responds to emergencies; trains staff, researchers, and clinicians in how to work in a lab safely; and reviews safety protocols. It is a full-time endeavor for EHRS’ 50-plus staff members.
With the onset of COVID-19, EHRS has responded to the public health crisis. Part of this work, says Maureen Malachowski , associate director of industrial hygiene, involved making sure that labs were shut down safely this spring. “We were very involved with the shutdown: Giving labs checklists, making sure we were tracking which labs were going offline, and checking inventories to make sure that people were taking care of hazardous materials before they left,” says Malachowski.
But at the pandemic’s outset, while some labs were shutting down, those who were working on COVID-19 related research were just ramping up. For researchers who wanted to work with samples that contained SARS-CoV-2, this meant access to a biosafety level three (BSL-3) laboratory, which required additional lab training for researchers, establishing virus inactivation protocols, and setting up a BSL-3 task force to help review the projects that were being developed at a rapid pace.
“It almost felt like things never wound down,” says Andrew Maksymowych, associate director of biosafety. “We have a large biomedical research community, and for them this was a call to action. Folks that may not have operated their laboratories at a certain biosafety level all wanted to help out and do COVID-19 research.”
In addition to supporting researchers in the early days of the pandemic, radiation safety team members continued administering and overseeing radiotherapy treatments, where they ensure that radioactive materials are appropriately used and disposed of and that radiation exposure to patients and staff is minimal. This crucial work continued during the spring shut-downs as members of the radiation team kept working within hospitals and treatment centers during the early days of the pandemic.
Supporting researchers in the ‘new normal’
As one of the first points of contact for COVID-19 information, EHRS has become an important resource for safely resuming essential on-campus activities. “We were the first to have a lot of key information on our website about disinfectants, mask specifications, and PPE requests,” says Maureen O’Leary, associate vice provost for research.
At the start of the Penn’s phased campus reopening, EHRS played a key role in the safe resumption of on-campus research. The team reviewed close-proximity waivers for procedures that couldn’t be done with social distancing, kept track of where operations were resuming in the early phases of reopening, and established the University’s masking specifications. EHRS has also been involved with numerous Penn COVID-related task forces and hosted a number of town halls for researchers, provided guidance and training for those who were coming back to campus, consulted on the development of PennOpen Pass, and even led the effort for on-campus contact tracing from April through September.
One of the ways EHRS continues to support the community and ensure compliance is through consistent communication and engagement with the community. Part of this is achieved during “COVID sweeps,” laboratory compliance checks focused on social distancing and masks. “Part of compliance is to get people to think about something that’s not natural, to behave in manner most of us find unusual,” says Joseph Passante, director of environmental health and safety activities of the EHRS office, referring to how the sweeps are designed to educate and support the research community. COVID safety sweeps are currently being conducted in the Perelman School of Medicine and School of Arts & Sciences, with planned expansion to other schools across campus.
O’Leary and Passante also emphasize the importance of combining masks, distancing, and minimizing time spent around others to keep the campus community safe. “One of the smartest things that the orders from the governor of Pennsylvania did was to combine distancing and masks; each alone has some effect, but there’s a synergy between the two, and you get more out of using both precautions,” says Passante.
Another regulatory and logistical task faced by EHRS was getting the School of Dental Medicine back up and running this summer. Because of the stringency of American Dental Association guidelines, CDC guidelines, and Pennsylvania state rules, people doing clinical dental work that generated aerosols needed to be outfitted with N95 masks. Thanks to the efforts of industrial hygienist Valerie Perez, EHRS worked with the Dental School to obtain certified respirators, coordinate medical clearances, and conduct respirator fit tests for more than 400 faculty and staff as well as 800 dental students.
Looking forward and staying engaged
While keeping up-to-date with the steady stream of new research and updated guidance about COVID, EHRS is also engaged in ongoing campus reopening plans. This includes reviewing lab designs for Project Quaker, providing recommendations for environmental COVID testing, assessing building-ventilation systems, reviewing disability accommodations and safety plans for contractors, and even assessing the safety of band practices.
EHRS remains committed to engaging with the Penn community whenever they are needed, says Maksymowych, whether it’s after hours or on a weekend, to help support the academic mission. “When you get a lot of information and individuals are not used to dealing with certain terminology or approaches, that’s where we step in: To try to facilitate understanding, provide resources, and enable them to do what they need to do in short order and to help somebody get their job done,” she says.
Because their work cuts across schools, clinics, and academic programs, EHRS is, by nature, a collaborative office, a trend that has continued during the pandemic. “The good thing is that our office is very embedded in the University, and people feel comfortable calling up anyone in our office,” says Malachowski.
While the work of EHRS has often occurred in the background, now, because of COVID, health and safety and EHRS are at the forefront of everyone’s minds. “I think in some ways, our jobs became easier, because everybody knows what it is and what we do,” says Maksymowych.
While the spring and early summer were some of the “most challenging months” that the EHRS office has gone through, Passante says the work within the office was a testament to their team’s adaptability and ability to prioritize—from the radiation technicians that continued to support cancer patients to staff who stepped up to review COVID safety documents and work outside of their main area of discipline. “It was a tremendously stressful time just getting normal stuff done, and the collaboration was amazing,” he says.
O’Leary also adds that researchers across campus are doing a great job at adhering to COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines. “We’re not getting out of this business at all, and we don’t want to,” she adds about the EHRS office. “We want to help people, and we want to keep the workplace as safe as possible, and we’re all passionate about that because that’s our regular job, too.”
For information on Penn’s COVID-19 response, visit https://coronavirus.upenn.edu/