“Don't be afraid to reorganize to fit your needs. Keep what's working, fix what's broken. Be nimble and move forward.”
- Dr. Kenneth Olive.
As the reach of COVID-19 has grown to engulf most countries worldwide, the Columbia University Irving Medical Center in the City of New York is experiencing a series of familiar difficulties in dealing with this pandemic: emergency rooms crowded with patients, medical professionals being redeployed from their specialities, shortages of basic PPE (face masks, shields, gloves, and gowns), and clinical needs dominating over basic research efforts.The acute needs of our clinical colleagues at the Medical Center have sparked a frenzy of volunteer support efforts, including those organized by the teams of Columbia Researchers Against COVID-19, CRAC. The key message is that the collective expertise and creativity of our community, coupled with the redeployment of available resources, is a powerful tool for tackling complex problems.
Below are some key points your research and medical institutes can implement to develop a quick and effective response to this pandemic.
Engage the leadership and administrative infrastructure already in place
Remember that research institutions have many skilled workers who can use their expertise to fulfill novel tasks. Establishing multidisciplinary teams will improve the likelihood of a creative and efficient solution to a specific problem, while providing an outlet for your skilled colleagues. Throughout this process, buy-in from Columbia University administration, especially the Irving Medical Center, has proven incredibly helpful.
Best practices to recruit your workforce
Work with your Medical Center/Hospital leadership to develop policies that clarify which type of personnel can be recruited to help in case additional needs and tasks arise that cannot be satisfied by existing personnel, and what mode of employment will be utilized.
Questions you want to answer early on:
Diagnostic and serology testing
These are essential procedures that, if put in place early on, will allow to monitor the health and safety of at least your community:
COVID-19 related research database
As most basic research at your Institution has likely already ramped down, focus on developing an up to date, institution wide COVID-19 related research database. This database will avoid duplications of efforts and enhance efficiency. Include information that will be needed later to foster collaborations between different Departments and Organizations, and make sure you also maintain a comprehensive list of equipment, workforce aides and expertise available to support the COVID-19 active laboratories
Samples from COVID-19 patients are going to be invaluable to fuel both present and future COVID-19-related research:
"Our story": how we got it together
On March 18th, 2020 Dr. Álvaro Cuesta-Domínguez, an Associate Research Scientist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, sent out a call for volunteers - Columbia postdocs were asked to offer their experience, laboratory skills and knowledge to help expand testing and thus slow the spread of SARS-Cov-2. 150 volunteers responded in just two days time. Since then, Columbia Researchers Against COVID-19, CRAC, has grown to over 550 volunteers. We are a group of Columbia University postdocs, graduate students, faculty members, and administrators who connect available volunteer researchers, personnel, and resources with efforts that aim to better understand how to fight COVID-19 and/or support our health care community. Our teams of skilled experts tackle projects such as:
We don’t try to supplant official efforts, but rather support them. Each project assists a faculty or administrative director who has the appropriate expertise, administrative oversight, and infrastructural resources to tackle COVID-19. Finding key leaders with strong managerial skills and time availability is of paramount importance. This strategy keeps our volunteers safe and leverages the full capacity of our University resources. We started with a bottom up approach: we first determined the needs of our epidemiologist, immunologist, and public health professionals, etc. and then supported each need by recruiting highly skilled volunteers and experts. We are now at a stage where people from the Columbia community, experts and creative thinkers alike, reach out to us so that we can swiftly assist in building a network of administrators and scientific collaborators who can speed up the launch of the project and enhance the likelihood of success.
As a founder or a member of such effort, you have the privilege and the responsibility to make your organization equitable and strive for inclusion and accessibility for all. Aim for gender balance and include all voices, also the ones who are traditionally underrepresented. To reach these basic goals, cast your net wide: don’t just rely on the people you know, but draw on the vast human resources of your university to fill every volunteer position. Then, have your Personnel Officers follow up with brief phone interviews before onboarding new volunteers.
The CRAC structure hinges on two divisions: Projects & Operations.
-Post 5: If not now, when? If not us, who? Perspectives on Stepping Up During Dual Pandemics
-Post 4: Answering the call: CRAC Serology Testing Volunteers Join the Fight Against COVID-19
-Volunteer Profiles: An opportunity to “meet” some of the serology testing volunteers
-Post 3: The human scrub machine
- Post 2: Biobank volunteers process 15,500 samples
- Post 1: The CRAC organizational structure
Covid-19 has changed what matters.
The CRAC team was born as a grassroots response to a pandemic none of us has experienced in their lifetime. CRAC has now grown into a community of like-minded postdocs, students, faculty, and administrators, from across Columbia University - a diverse and inclusive ecosystem of talented individuals with a simple goal: support projects to address what matters now, the fight against covid-19.
These are the stories of how the CRAC ecosystem has evolved and continues to adapt to bring life to efforts that became bigger than the sum of their parts. These are also the stories of single individuals who continue to inspire others with their unheralded efforts.