New survey of researchers finds high compliance with COVID-19 protective measures

Written by
Catherine Zandonella, Office of the Dean for Research
April 21, 2021

A new survey of Princeton researchers has found strong compliance with the University’s guidelines designed to protect health and safety during the pandemic.

Acknowledging the tremendous efforts of on-campus researchers and the resulting low case counts, the University continues to emphasize continued vigilance and adherence to policies for conducting safe research during COVID-19.

The survey asked faculty members, students and research staff to report their experiences and attitudes regarding the University’s guidelines for safeguarding researchers during the pandemic. The University implemented the guidelines in June 2020 as part of the Plan for the Phased Resumption of On-campus Research.

Nearly 90% of the respondents somewhat or strongly agreed that Princeton is taking appropriate steps to protect the health and safety of its graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, research support staff and faculty.

“The safe continuance of research despite extraordinary challenges is inspiring and essential, because research, together with teaching, is at the very heart of what Princeton does as a University,” said Dean for Research Pablo Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science and professor of chemical and biological engineering, and chair of the Committee on Phased Resumption of On-campus Research. “I am inspired by the dedication of our researchers to the pursuit of new knowledge, often with societal implications, as exemplified by the many on-campus research projects on COVID-19. I am impressed by our researchers’ readiness to protect each other during the pandemic.”

Nearly three-quarters of respondents reported that they are able to navigate the work-life challenge imposed by the University’s COVID-19 health and safety guidelines. Only 16% stated that they have somewhat navigated or not navigated the challenge.

Among researchers approved to work in laboratories and offices on campus, respondents reported high compliance with mask wearing, with 92% saying they always wear masks and an additional 8% saying they wear them most of the time.

Ninety-one percent reported high adherence to the required six feet of separation from others. This included 50% who said they maintain the required distance at all times, and 41% who said they maintain the distance most of the time. For the purposes of the survey, “most of the time” was defined as more than 80% of the time.

Researchers also reported high levels of adherence to lab occupancy limits set to ensure social distancing. Overall, 93% of respondents said they uphold the required lab occupancy levels most or all of the time, with 61% stating they do so at all times and 32% stating they do so most of the time.

Nearly all respondents (95%) reported coming to campus only when feeling well, while 5% reported doing so most of the time.

“Overall, the number of cases on campus, including among researchers, has remained low, and there has not been evidence of transmission related to laboratory activities,” said Robin Izzo, executive director of Environmental Health and Safety and a member of the committee. “Nonetheless, with the case rates in our county continuing to be high and the prevalence of new viral variants in our area, we need to remain vigilant.”

Despite the high compliance rates for mask-wearing, social distancing and lab occupancy, compliance with some aspects of the plan leave room for improvement. Only 42% of the respondents said they always adhere to the University’s guidelines on routine cleaning and sanitizing, while 36% said they do so most of the time and 14% said they do so “often,” defined as over 50% of the time.

Although some studies report that surfaces have a lesser role in transmission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommend cleaning and sanitizing high-touch surfaces, and University guidelines require daily disinfection of all lab surfaces and equipment.

Only three-fourths of respondents reported using the University’s online Daily Symptom Check most or all of the time. The State of New Jersey and the University require that all students, faculty, researchers and staff complete a Daily Symptom Check each day prior to entering any University building or worksite, including those on and off campus, except for their on-campus residence. To encourage improvement in usage of the symptom check, the University soon will begin sending compliance reports to department leadership, in addition to reminder emails, according to Izzo.

Survey responses regarding the University’s asymptomatic testing program indicated that more than 75% comply fully with the testing protocol, which requires weekly saliva samples from persons required to be on campus. An additional 20% comply most of the time. The majority of missing tests are attributed to the fact that individuals are only required to submit samples during the weeks that they are on campus.

“The University members working on campus have made heroic efforts to keep each other safe since the re-launch,” said Bonnie Bassler, the Squibb Professor in Molecular Biology and chair of the Department of Molecular Biology, and a member of the committee. “Moreover, they have continued to perform their jobs, advance their scholarship, and make groundbreaking research discoveries under especially challenging working conditions. Obviously, we must keep it up going forward! I am proud, sincerely grateful, and humbled by this collective Herculean response to the pandemic.”

When respondents were asked to report on how often their lab group members complied with health and safety guidelines, the responses were roughly comparable to the results from the self-reported compliance, although the percentages of “all the time” responses shifted slightly to “most of the time” or “often.”

When asked whether respondents had encountered other lab members failing to comply with the guidance, roughly a third reported observing at least one incidence of non-compliance since coming to work regularly on campus.

“We all recognize that the current guidelines create challenges for conducting laboratory research, and so it has been quite inspiring to see how everyone has adapted to, and indeed made the most of, a difficult situation,” said Tom Muir, the Van Zandt Williams Jr. Class of 1965 Professor of Chemistry and a committee member. “While the overall level of compliance remains high, it is important that we all remain vigilant as we move into the Spring and Summer months. We are all in this together, so if you see someone not playing by the rules there really is an obligation to do something, either by talking to individuals directly, or by pointing this out to an appropriate supervisor. A third option is to report the incident via the anonymous hotline.”

Among those who said they had observed non-compliance, 70% reported taking steps to address the issue. The majority of respondents addressed the issue directly with the individuals, while others consulted another member of the lab group or informed a person of authority.

The majority of respondents (87%) reported feeling no pressure to conduct lab-based research activities that they were not comfortable with or that they felt did not adhere to the University’s guidelines for the safe conduct of research.

The majority of respondents stated that their compliance has remained high in comparison to when they first returned to campus.

“The overall continued compliance with mask-wearing nearly nine months into the resumption is a testament to our researchers’ conscientiousness and commitment to everyone’s health and safety,” said Karla Ewalt, associate dean for research and a member of the committee. “Despite the long haul, people recognize mask-wearing and other measures as crucial steps in protecting themselves and others against the spread of COVID-19.”

Of 2294 researchers invited to take the survey, 509 did so, a response rate of 22%, a decline from the 48% response rate for a previous survey conducted in summer 2020, soon after researchers returned to campus following last year’s state-mandated stay-at-home order.

Roughly a quarter of the respondent pool were faculty, a quarter were postdoctoral researchers, and a quarter were graduate students, with the remaining quarter consisting of research or administrative staff, research scholars and professional specialists, and undergraduates. About 80% of the researchers who responded work on campus, while the remainder have not returned to campus on a regular basis.

See all survey results.