[visionlist] How to ramp up human subject research after COVID-19 lockdown?

Susana Chung s.chung at berkeley.edu
Thu Apr 30 13:36:22 -04 2020

Safety measures to ramping up human subject research after COVID-19 lockdown

As more and more countries or cities are easing their lockdown or shelter-in-place orders, many universities are pondering how to open up for human subject research in a safe way to protect both the participants and the researchers.  Obviously, the way we work with human subjects may forever change from now on. 

A colleague of mine, Professor Dennis Levi, is serving on a task force to look into how we could ramp up human subject research at UC Berkeley safely.  I thought many administrators or researchers across the world would have the same questions in mind, so I thought it might be a good idea to have a forum to discuss these issues.  Of course, there maybe countries that have already reopened, in that case, perhaps someone could share their experiences with the rest of us.

Let me throw out a few ideas to get the discussion going.  Clearly some subject populations are considered as higher-risk than others, for example, older subjects.  But what if we have psychophysical experiments that we do not need a lot of subjects, and very often the experimenters also serve as subjects?  In this case, it seems like we should be allowed to run ourselves in the lab (provided that we maintain social distancing, and wipe down all equipment, countertops, keyboards, mouse etc.).  The next level of risk may be if we have to run naïve subjects.  Still, if we could maintain proper social distancing, for example, the experimenter and the subject maintain a certain distance away while the experimenter shows the subject what to do, and then leaves the area, and the subject basically starts the experiment himself/herself while the experimenter waits in another room.  This could be augmented using cell phones if the subject experiences problems with the experiment.  However, how could we test subjects that are of higher risks?

Also, what is the proper “social distance” when we test human subjects?  In the US, the government’s definition seems to be 6 ft.  I know other places adopt 1.5 m. 

If we have to work with human subjects closely (closely means maybe an arm’s length, for example, you have to adjust the head-and-chin rest for the subject), what would be the safest practice?  Wearing masks, gloves etc should be the standard, but do we need to refrain from talking to them – this seems difficult since we would need to give instructions to the subjects?  Or, should we turn our heads away from them if we have to talk to them?  Wear face shields?  Or, should we record our instructions or have someone else (standing far away) giving the instructions so the experimenter who is in close proximity with the subject does not have to open his/her mouth (even with a mask)? 

Do we need to keep monitoring the subjects’ health after the visit – calling them up to check on them?  If so, for how long after the visit to the lab?

Thanks for reading this long email, and thanks in advance to those who are going to provide comments or suggestions.  We’re all in this together, so hopefully we could also help one another out. 

I will organize the responses and post them online.  I’m also hoping that our collective responses may help funding agencies to understand the challenges in conducting human subject research in this difficult time.

Meanwhile, stay safe and stay well!

Susana Chung
UC Berkeley
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