As life science companies race to develop vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, they have become known as leaders and experts in navigating the pandemic. However, many biotechs face the same questions as other businesses when it comes to preparing their facilities to address COVID-19 and mitigate spread. Biocom’s “Adapting Your Facility to COVID-19” workshop, held virtually on June 23, 2020, tackled the subject head-on.
Moderated by Jeana Renger, Vice President at Ferguson Pape Baldwin Architects, the workshop explored best practices for facility managers in adapting to COVID-19, joined by panelists Jessica Francis from Fate Therapeutics, Taylor Gifford from Cultura, and DJ VanSlogteren from Siemens, as well as Biocom Facilities Committee Co-Chairs Jason Moorhead from ARE and Andy Darragh from FPBA. The discussion covered workplace design to accommodate physical distancing; people flows, monitoring density, and limiting occupancy; seat assignments with staggered shifts; smart cleaning; digital contact tracing; touchless entry; and sterilization through UV lighting.
A Model of Excellence: COVID-19 Onsite Operations at Fate Therapeutics
Fate Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical company that develops cellular immunotherapies for cancer and immune disorders, was early to respond to COVID-19. According to Jessica Francis, Executive Director, HR & Operations at Fate Therapeutics, the company prohibited business travel in January, increased facility cleaning in February, and rolled out a work-from-home plan and staggered schedules for essential workers in early March.
At the beginning of June, Fate doubled its capacity to perform lab and manufacturing work, from 35 percent to 70 percent, while work that can be conducted from home remains at home. To accomplish this capacity increase, Fate is expanding office space at a new location to allow for physical distancing, as well as implementing the following infection control practices:
- Physical Distancing: Maintain 6 feet distance when possible, prohibit discussions in tight areas, increase space between workspaces, reassign seating to limit close contact, temporarily close off conference rooms
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Requirements: Use facial coverings in all on-site areas, unless in an office area alone, or eating with no one else around
- Disinfection, Sanitation and Airflow: Day porter wipes down surfaces twice daily, janitorial staff disinfects every evening, hand sanitizer and disposable wipes are placed throughout
- Managing Traffic Flow: Place maps, signage and recommended routes for entering and exiting labs, break rooms and offices; prohibit congregating in shared areas; use outdoor spaces for breaks; and temporarily convert conference rooms to desk spaces
- Meetings: Conduct meetings virtually when possible, limit in-person meetings to two people for no more than 30 minutes, prohibit business travel, report personal travel, limit visitors to essential workers such as UPS and vendors
- Health Monitoring/Reporting Requirements: Screen on-site employees daily, prohibit going into work if an employee or household member displays symptoms or has been in contact with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, maintain confidentiality
- Case-by-Case Accommodations: Employees encouraged to contact HR if they are unable to return to on-site work, work that can be conducted from home should continue to be, ergonomic solutions provided as needed
- Incidence Response: Create incidence response plan where incidence response team is informed of potential employee exposures, direct exposed employee to self-isolate, conduct contact tracing, notify potential exposed employees, close impacted areas of the facility for 24 hours to conduct deep cleaning, maintain confidentiality
Francis recommended communicating constantly regarding proper use of masks and conference room closures, providing a dedicated place for these communications.
“We developed a COVID-19 resource page on our intranet and we update the Frequently Asked Questions and post all communications there,” Francis said. “Regular email messaging wasn’t enough.”
Comeback Strategy: Supporting Wellbeing, Preserving Culture, and Transforming the Furniture Plan
While Francis gave a comprehensive look into the operational side of adapting to COVID-19, Taylor Gifford, Vice President at Cultura, presented options for how to make adjustments to accommodate physical distancing while supporting wellbeing and preserving company culture in various spaces.
“You want to establish a sense of confidence with your organization through the space that you’re utilizing,” Gifford said. Effective policies and procedures that outline what employees can and cannot do will give them the confidence to come back to the office.
To start out, Gifford brought up a floor plan overlaid with green and red. Green areas were “Good to Go,” meaning those workspaces already accommodate a 6-foot distance. Red areas meant they “Need Attention” and must be rearranged to account for 6 feet of separation. Most red areas were meeting rooms and shared spaces, but some benching system workstations were also culprits of closeness.
“It’s not uncommon to find a lot of red, and this can seem overwhelming at first,” Gifford said. You have to analyze who these workers are, what they are doing, and whether they are splitting their time between their desk and the lab. Once you have a better understanding of how the spaces are used, you can reassess the floor plan and consider shift scheduling.
Reconfiguring the space does not necessarily mean shutting down the open office or benching spaces. Instead, Gifford says, it could be assigning workspaces diagonal from each other with a staggered schedule, removing some chairs from conference rooms, rotating chairs away from each other, and adding divider panels to workstations for privacy and protection.
Flexible furniture such as conference tables that can be pulled apart into smaller pieces allow for separation and put the power into employees’ hands. “People want some user control right now,” Gifford said. “It’s a good way to give them a sense of confidence and safety.”
Cleanability of furniture materials should also be considered. Hard and seamless surfaces are easier to clean than porous ones, while Alta, a water and stain repellent, can be applied to fabrics to enhance cleanability.
Ultimately, Gifford emphasized that companies should gather information from employees on what makes them feel safe before rushing out to buy a bunch of plastic dividers.
Cultura was a major contributor to Biocom’s Return to Work Guide for California’s Life Science Industry, which offers a deep dive into preparing for the return to work.
Come Back With Confidence | Building Technology
Furthering the discussion on operational infection control procedures, DJ VanSlogteren, IoT Solutions Lead at Siemens, shared four technologies that have risen to the top: 1) digital proximity and contract tracing solutions, 2) targeting sanitization efforts by monitoring occupancy, 3) air-side sanitization, and 4) touch-free entrance, exit and elevator control.
Digital Contact Tracing
“Where is the most density in your facility? How do we visualize that? What kind of data can we get to show that there are certain bottlenecks in a facility, and how can we navigate around that?” VanSlogteren mused. This data can be used to enact policies and traffic flows to alleviate problem areas.
With badges and ceiling sensors, employees can be tracked as they move throughout the facility. Each badge is associated with a random ID, preserving anonymity and privacy of employees. Software maps out movement of the badges and determines when badges come within 6 feet of contact with other badges and for how long.
If a presumptive or confirmed positive case surfaces, you can pull a list from the software of badges that came into contact with that of the positive case.
Targeted Sanitization Efforts
Occupancy and equipment sensors can gather data on which areas of the facility are used most often. From there, janitorial staff can be informed of where to spend the most time cleaning and disinfecting, and when those areas are likely to be vacant.
Alternatively, targeted ultraviolet treatment can disinfect surfaces and air handlers with about 25-30 minutes of exposure. Occupancy sensors monitor spaces and set a timetable to turn UV lights on when no one is in the area.
Ionization in air handlers releases charged atoms that attach to and deactivate harmful substances like bacteria, mold, allergens, and viruses. They also attach to expelled breath droplets and dust particles that can transport viruses, enlarging them so they’re more easily caught in normal-sized air filters.
Touch-free Entrance Control
Touchless entries and elevators reduce the risk of contracting the virus from touching a shared surface. FLIR cameras take it a step further by introducing a thermal camera to measure for elevated skin temperatures as employees enter the building.
Altogether, these technologies can create a sense of confidence and help keep facilities safe.
How will lab design change as a result of COVID-19?
Francis provided excellent operational guidance on returning to work, Gifford showed how to transform a furniture plan while maintaining company culture, and VanSlogteren unveiled technologies to support digital contract tracing and reduce risk of spread. From here, a question remains: what will the long-term impact be to laboratory design?
“In the lab environment, we’ve seen a trend toward sharing equipment among departments wherever possible, and I question whether we will see that become more dedicated again,” said Andy Darragh, Biocom Facilities Committee Co-Chair and Executive Vice President at FPBA.
More likely, according to Darragh, is that shared equipment will simply be cleaned more often, and shift scheduling will become a trend. Lab users may alternate spending one full day in the lab, followed by a day doing computer work.
“Some questions are yet to be answered, but we’ll try to figure it out as we go along, and we’re anxious to see what the future holds.”