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Keeping air free of COVID

Photo by Robert A. Lisak

Every occupation has a language particular to its needs: acronyms, vocabulary, and terms that capture its unique constraints and challenges. Yale’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) is no different.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, however, the challenges and constraints of EHS were brought to the forefront of public consciousness for several months. Suddenly, the effectiveness ratings of masks became a matter of urgent importance. Supplies of disinfectant were emptied in a matter of days, with many people racing to stay up to speed with sanitation best practices. Home air purifiers flew off the shelves and the warehouses of online retailers as citizens tried to figure out the difference between biosafety level (BSL)-2 and BSL-3, and which rating would best protect against spreading the virus inside a home.

Meanwhile, Yale’s EHS was working overtime to accomplish three concurrent missions—ensuring that labs working on COVID were BSL-3 compliant; helping convert a wing of the hospital to treat COVID patients; and making sure other university facilities and housing were as safe as possible for students, faculty, and researchers.

“Our priority was to secure the university; to make sure the hospital was as safe a place as we could make it for health care workers; and create spaces for researchers to understand the virus,” said Peter Reinhardt, director of EHS.

Another priority for Reinhardt was providing a context in which fellows, residents, and medical students could continue their education. EHS ensured that such fundamental elements of training as gross anatomy classes and examination rooms were properly ventilated and sanitized. “I thought, if we’re in the middle of a pandemic, we can’t stop training medical students,” Reinhardt said.

One innovation of which Reinhardt is particularly proud is a type of medical enclosure called a STUBBY. EHS built custom-made enclosures in places where it was not possible to convert labs to BSL-3 compliance (the level required for safe handling and research of active COVID-19). One beneficiary of a STUBBY, according to Reinhardt, was Nathan Grubaugh, PhD, MS, assistant professor of epidemiology (microbial diseases) in the Yale School of Public Health, whose work figured prominently in the development of an early saliva-based COVID test.

As if that were not enough, the group also evaluated and stored personal protective equipment (PPE) in the earliest days and weeks when supplies were short. “We were heavily involved with collecting donations for PPE,” added Kevin Charbonneau, EHS’s deputy director.

Furthermore, when the university established a field hospital in an empty Payne Whitney Gymnasium in April 2020, EHS was instrumental in bringing it online in accordance with regulations and best practice before pivoting over to student testing sites and other routine support.

“We’re safety professionals and we deal with ventilation all the time, so we were prepared up to a certain point, but nobody expected [the pandemic] to last as long as it has,” said Charbonneau.

Once more was known and understood about the virus, EHS swung back into action, helping reopen labs and sanitize public spaces for scientists, physicians, and researchers. This reopening meant the speedy continuation of paused clinical trials. It also permitted researchers to begin new trials and experiments.

“Once the university had figured out what they wanted to do, when, and where, we responded to make sure that leadership’s vision for education and safety were carried out,” said Reinhardt. “That’s our job.”