Webinar Follow-up: IACUC Operations—Pandemic & Beyond

On September 17, 2020, PRIM&R hosted a webinar, IACUC Operations: Pandemic & Beyond. During this webinar, Stacy Pritt, MS, DVM, MBA, CPIA, CHRC, DACAW, and Kathryn Cavanaugh, BS, CPIA, shared various methods for conducting IACUC business electronically and virtually and explored employee engagement strategies for keeping IACUC staff connected during a remote work setting. Following the webinar, Stacy and Kathryn reflected on the session and attendee feedback; we’re pleased to share their response with the readers of Ampersand.

We want to thank everyone who attended the webinar and especially those who participated in the breakout rooms and submitted questions. In this post, we will take a deeper dive to explain how we have continued to conduct inspections without the use of an OLAW Waiver and how protocol review operations have continued without interruption. We will also address how our staff have contributed to our employee engagement efforts and how we continue to come up with dynamic and entertaining engagement events for the department.

Semi-annual Facility Inspections

Our institution, UT Southwestern Medical Center, had the fortunate timing of having our AAALAC site visit occur within the week prior to us starting to work remotely due to COVID-19. In an effort to reduce the burden on IACUC members, staff and researchers, as well as to promote safety, we elected to use our AAALAC site-visit as a means to satisfy our semi-annual inspection requirements. Traditionally, when an inspection is performed, we maintain documentation on when the inspection occurred, who participated, and what deficiencies (if any) were noted. These same items were documented when using our AAALAC site-visit to meet these requirements. We recorded which rooms the site visitors visited, the date they saw these rooms and any deficiencies noted, and the IACUC members or representatives who accompanied the site visitors.

As we continue to conduct semi-annual inspections on a rolling basis (10 out of the 12 months of the year), we have streamlined our approach to ensure proper distancing and safety precautions. Although any IACUC member may request to attend an inspection, many of the inspections are being conducted by just a few rotating members who have volunteered to be physically on-site. Also, rooms and facilities are being combined into fewer inspection events to limit exposure and reduce the need for inspectors to be on-site as frequently.

Our institution has also rolled out a daily survey that must be taken by all employees. It asks if they will be coming to campus and, if so, if they are experiencing any COVID-19 related symptoms or have been exposed to someone recently who has tested positive for COVID-19. Depending on the responses to the survey, employees are then cleared to come to campus or directed to the Occupational Health Clinic for further evaluation before coming on-site. As it is required to be completed daily by all employees, it is completed by all those involved in any IACUC inspections as well.

Protocol Review

Even prior to COVID-19, our institution utilized an electronic protocol management system that could be accessed remotely. As the threat of COVID-19 forced many more people to transition to 100% remote work, we worked with our IT department to develop clear, stepwise instructions for how to access our protocol system remotely. These instructions were then distributed to IACUC Office staff, IACUC Members, and researchers alike. With the help of these guidance documents, the switch to accessing the system offsite was relatively smooth. This allowed our protocol review operations to continue to occur within the system seamlessly. This was demonstrated through the metrics that we observed, especially in the first few months of remote work.

Our metrics showed that our IACUC was able to approve 56% more protocols in the first two months of remote work (in March – April 2020) when compared to the previous two months of the year (January – February 2020). Within that time period, we did note that the number of amendments reviewed decreased by 54%, but our metrics allowed us to determine this was mainly due to the steep drop-off in personnel amendments received during these months of scaled down research. However, as our institution has ramped back up its research since April, we have seen an increase in the number of amendments being submitted and approved by the IACUC. Between the months of May – July 2020, the number of amendments rose each month with the number of amendments approved in July 2020 being within approximately 1% of the total number of amendments approved in January and February 2020.

Reducing Burden

As we navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to look for ways to reduce burden on our researchers and Committee. For example, the IACUC has recently developed a new policy pertaining to inactive protocols and animal research locations for PIs to consider when renewing their protocols.

For protocols in which PIs have not performed any work in the previous three-year approval period, the IACUC Office will engage with them to see if they want to maintain their protocol or allow it to close. This will educate PIs that renewals are not a “now or never” proposition but rather they can have an active say in whether they want to close certain projects for the time being to allow their lab to focus on more pressing priorities. In the newly developed policy, it communicates that the IACUC Office will maintain copies of protocols for the appropriate retention period and can provide copies to the lab in the future if PIs want to submit the protocol at a later time. This collaborative communication alleviates any pressure the PI may feel to renew work that is not an immediate priority for them simply for the sake of “beating the clock”.

Similarly, if an animal research location has not been used for approximately 3 years, the IACUC Office will communicate with the lab to see if they still want to maintain this space or if they would like to remove it from their applicable protocols. Especially during COVID-19, eliminating the need to inspect dormant room locations in which animal work is not being performed not only reduced burden on those involved but also alleviates any potential safety risks. When communicating with labs about such dormant locations, the IACUC educates them that rooms may be added back to protocols with relative ease via an amendment and re-inspection if they want to explore using them again in the future.

Employee Engagement

One of the keys to employee engagement that was not mentioned in our webinar is consistency. As you continue to work remotely, developing methods to engage employees and recognize their good work must remain a consistent priority. During our webinar we shared many ideas for how we are recognizing employees’ accomplishments and planning engaging social events to keep morale high. As we head into the holiday season, we are looking for novel ways to transition our once in-person celebrations to remote.

One employee in our department has voluntarily spearheaded an effort to plan a holiday craft tutorial. They chose a craft with a limited supply list, so it is easy for employees to obtain their own craft supplies. The voluntary event will include a tutorial on how to make glass etching art such as a frosted monogram on a drinking glass. Many employees in the department have signed up and a supply list with directions has been distributed in the weeks leading up to the event.

We are also looking to make our annual holiday party virtual. A staple tradition of our annual party has been a trivia game. Even with the switch to a remote setting, the breakout room function within Zoom will still allow the trivia teams to privately discuss their answers virtually before submitting them to the host. Although this year has been full of changes, the staff are looking forward to continuing one of its favorite annual traditions!