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With a health check-in app, masks, and tests, MIT pilots safety measures for reopening labs

MIT is among the first institutions in the Greater Boston area to outline detailed plans for how it will resume its research operations, a nearly $4 billion-a-year enterprise that involves more than 12,000 scientists, students, and staff.
MIT is among the first institutions in the Greater Boston area to outline detailed plans for how it will resume its research operations, a nearly $4 billion-a-year enterprise that involves more than 12,000 scientists, students, and staff.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

A small cadre of MIT’s researchers are beginning to test what could become daily practices at the university as it tries to reopen the campus to faculty and students amid the coronavirus pandemic.

MIT is among the first institutions in the Greater Boston area to outline detailed plans for how it will resume its research operations, a nearly $4 billion-a-year enterprise that involves more than 12,000 scientists, students, and staff.

The university has opened three lab buildings and is testing its protocols on about 400 people. That’s just a small fraction of its research community, but it offers a window on what could be life ahead.

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What does coming into work at a lab look like now? Forget about just walking into a building to meet a colleague for lunch or to use the restroom. Only those on an authorized list and whose identification badges are scanned at the door are allowed in.

Getting ready for work now includes checking in with a phone app that asks whether you have a cough, chills, or fever or have knowingly interacted with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. The app gives employees a green or red symbol, indicating that they are either are cleared to come in or may have to go to MIT’s medical offices for a coronavirus test.

Masks are essential. Signs throughout buildings warning “COVID-19 Access Restricted” and reminding employees that they must wear protective gear are being installed. And the university plans to conduct random checks to ensure that researchers follow the rules.

“We don’t want to be a police state, but our community wants to be safe,” said Maria Zuber, the vice president of research at MIT.

As university leaders in the Boston area look toward fall and how to bring students and faculty back to campus, many are taking small steps, starting with their research labs. Harvard said it is preparing to reopen some of its labs and is purchasing safety equipment and adapting spaces to meet the required social-distancing measures. Harvard hasn’t set a date for allowing researchers to return.

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“This process takes time, but we have made significant progress toward reopening,” Rick McCullough, Harvard’s vice provost of research told a university publication.

Boston University said it is requiring every principal investigator in its labs to provide a safety plan to reopen.

The initial focus on research labs makes sense, said Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute.

Universities have millions of dollars of investment and time-sensitive projects they are eager to complete in the labs. But it also allows institutions to test what procedures are needed to keep the virus from spreading and what safety protocols work in a smaller environment.

“If you can’t pull it off there, you’re going to have a very hard time,” Jha said.

Jha said that while public health experts are divided about a fall reopening, he thinks it can be done with fewer students, no large gatherings such as football games, and significant testing in place, so that students are checked for the virus before they arrive on campus and then frequently while there.

“It will obviously make for a suboptimal experience, but it’s better than a Zoom online experience,” Jha said. “I think it’s doable; I don’t think it’s a guarantee.”

MIT and other higher education institutions in the Boston area haven’t firmed up their plans for bringing students back to campus in the fall. However, many have said they are hoping to hold some or all of their courses in-person.

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MIT president L. Rafael Reif said in a letter to the community last week that bringing graduates back to campus appears more feasible than undergraduates, who live more closely in dormitories and take classes together and share dining rooms.

Committees will begin working on proposals for the fall starting in June, Reif said.

But in the meantime, the research labs are a good place to test procedures, Zuber said.

MIT has allowed a small number of researchers to continue coming in, because they work with animals or must finish their projects for their theses or to start a new job. Those researchers are the ones piloting these new guidelines, Zuber said.

They all have to sign off on paperwork agreeing to follow the safety rules and testing requirements. MIT has also modified the phone app that Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital used to track the health of its employees for the university community, she said.

The university also plans to randomly test those in the lab for the coronavirus and the samples will be sent to the Broad Institute, a research collaboration between Harvard and MIT, to be analyzed, she said.

Other area universities are trying to tap their own facilities for coronavirus testing.

On Thursday, BU announced that it would use a lab inside the Rajen Kilachand Center for Integrated Life Sciences & Engineering for virus testing. The increased testing is part of its plans to bring back students, faculty, and staff in the fall.

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BU said it expected some on campus would be tested more frequently than others; for example, students living with roommates may be screened twice a week. The university is purchasing robots to enable it to conduct as many as 500 tests a day, BU officials said.

Yet, even as colleges and universities prepare to reopen their campuses for the fall, scientists say that much will also depend on how widespread coronavirus infections and deaths are in specific communities when the semester begins.

“It only works when there’s no large community transmissions,” Jha said.


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.