Animal Care Program sets the standard for adaptability

Heidi Uhing, May 1, 2020

Animal Care Program sets the standard for adaptability

Louis Pasteur, the father of pasteurization and pioneer of the germ theory of disease, said that chance favors only the prepared mind. This explains why director Kelly Heath and his team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Institutional Animal Care Program have adapted so smoothly to working under an international pandemic. Their minds were prepared.

Because animals need round-the-clock care during long holidays and winter break, his team has always been designated essential staff, meaning they must have a plan to provide care 365 days a year. That plan could also be relied upon in instances of severe weather, when a blizzard might keep some staff away for stretches of time.

“We’d worked through several scenarios. The new thing about this [campus shutdown] is the duration, but the concept is the same,” Heath said. “Extrapolate on that and make sure you can sustain it.”

Animal care staff already had strict cleaning requirements in place.

For the animal care program, that meant dividing the team into two groups initially, half working on-site three consecutive days, the other half working three consecutive days. Staff are working the same number of hours, but the division provides protection so that if someone on Team A gets sick, Team B has not been exposed.

Three weeks into that plan, the university heightened its response to the pandemic, closing the campus to all but designated personnel to further ensure physical distancing. At that point, the teams further divided into four groups to avoid spread of the virus. Heath said IACP has a team in reserve that has not yet deployed: their administrative staff, who all know enough about the daily routine to fill in if needed.

As for their research centers in other locations around the state, Heath thought it best that they decide on the finer details of their own plans.

“That’s what makes it successful,” Heath said. “They know what their needs are, which is better than decisions coming from the top down.”

As a result, IACP slowed down its work when possible and delayed taking on any new research projects. Strategic decisions had to be made on a case-by-case basis after evaluating what projects would be affected. Those deemed mission critical or related to addressing COVID-19 got top priority.

“By all means, we’ll pull out all stops to get things done, but projects need to be prioritized,” he said, adding that researchers have been very helpful and cooperative as those decisions were made. As for the animals?

“We make sure they are warm, dry, have food, water, and the temperature and humidity are right. They’re living a stress-free life. We may take better care of our research animals than we do ourselves.”

Maintaining the Centers for Disease Control-advised six feet of distance between colleagues can be difficult when working with large animals, as more than one person may be necessary to handle them, so staff quickly moved to using full personal protective equipment. In a surgery, six or seven people may need to work in close proximity, and in these cases staff are already in full PPE, like one would expect to see in any hospital operating room.

“That’s protecting themselves and the patient,” Heath explained.

The animal care team is observing a six-foot distance whenever possible.

Some positive things have come out of the experience, like a greater appreciation of efficiency and teamwork.

“I’m proud of the way animal care staff on campus and statewide have responded to this with their grassroots plans. I think they’re really proud of the work they do as well, especially the COVID-19 related projects. They really see the translation of this work into a human product. That gives a real sense of pride.”

As they adjusted to this “new normal,” one curveball that their planning had not accounted for is the lack of child care available to staff during this time. Schools closed even before the university encouraged its employees to work from home, and Heath said this has been one of the biggest hurdles in their operations as they accommodate everyone’s scheduling needs.

“That’s universal for everybody. Organizing child care is particularly complicated for essential employees and it’s added stress to the situation, but the three-day schedule has helped, plus the additional option for administrative leave from the university,” he said.

When staff can’t be at the facility, they can work from home to review standard operating procedures and complete professional development, which are activities that can be tough to squeeze in during normal operation.

IACP specialist Megan Ebbers lives 40 minutes south of Lincoln and has been balancing her essential job, caring for her toddler at home and keeping an eye on calving season while her husband is out planting. That’s meant lots of Zoom meetings, webinars and working a flexible schedule. She said the Big Ten Academic Alliance has hosted webinars that have been helpful as each university has shared information on how they are navigating these changes.

“People are learning that they can be productive from home. That may require slightly different hours around child care, but everyone has done a really good job of doing their part,” she added.

Managing shift changes and making sure deliveries get where they need to be have been the biggest adjustments in her position. Shared calendars and daily Zoom meetings have helped the team communicate. Fortunately, resources they use most, like the NUgrant protocol system, are all online, so they can continue to be productive. From here forward, Ebbers said she will likely stock up on critical supplies for a bit longer period than she had before. Meanwhile, she misses her colleagues and their regular Friday lunches to connect and bounce ideas off each other.

“You don’t realize how important those casual conversations are to doing your work,” Ebbers said.