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Here's how Houston researchers are doing their work amid COVID-19

The University of Houston explores how research is being conducted in the age of the pandemic. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

As far as COVID-19 goes, Level 1 is the worst threat level. Harris County remains at Level 1, or "Severe Threat" for infection of the novel coronavirus. Yet, as they say in the theater, "The show must go on!" And for the most part, research is continuing in many ways. Surveys, interviews and other socially-distanced research has been easy to keep up during the COVID crisis.

How far away is six feet?

Some research must be done in person, though. Try to picture two golden retrievers standing nose to tail. Or a regular mattress. Or even the width of the front of your car. All of these measure in at about six feet. The droplets in the air are what can get you sick and when you stand at least six feet away from a person who is talking, laughing or coughing, you have a better chance of not breathing those virus molecules.

In the beginning... 

In human subjects research, the safety of participant volunteers is always of the utmost importance. This has only become more critical with the entrance of the pandemic in March 2020, and remains so today. In early March, PIs at the University of Houston were asked to review each of their studies and to let the University know whether missing visits would be detrimental to the safety or well-being of human subjects.

Some clinical studies (specifically those taking part in clinics that provide paid health services) were often allowed to continue under COVID precautions adopted by the medical community. Just as if you went to a doctor's office, there were rules: the 6-foot apart rule, mandatory mask-wearing, extra disinfecting and temperature checks. In some cases, modifications made such as the addition of plexiglass to instrumentation increased the safety of research procedures. Additional protections are in place to protect research staff and students; student involvement in research remains strictly voluntary.

What about IRBs?

At the University of Houston (UH), the Research Integrity and Oversight office is working with groups of faculty investigators, general counsel, Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management to put in place safety precautions for re-starting human subjects research where subjects are within six feet of the research team. This will happen once Judge Lina Hidalgo determines that Harris County may be downgraded to Level 2. These institutional requirements are in addition to and on top of the normal precautions taken by the Institutional Review Board, which is formally designated to, among other tasks, review, approve, require modifications in (to secure approval), or disapprove all research activities involving human subjects.

Up close and personal

In the instance Harris County is downgraded to Threat Level 2, COVID-19 procedures have been approved for subjects undergoing research procedures at the UH College of Optometry and in Health and Human and Performance exercise physiology studies. Physiology test subjects are often on treadmills or are exhaling more droplets into the air through exertion brought on by exercise.

COVID-19 procedures for other research that include test subjects that need to be closer than six feet apart (examples: applying sensors, walking in an exoskeleton, completing manual tasks, etc.) have been submitted for review and are currently being evaluated. As this group encompasses such a wide variety of research procedures, it has taken the longest to draft.

Contact tracing

Screening questions, non-recorded temperature checks and a log of updated contact information are now required for all research endeavors. Screening questions mirror those recommended by CDC, including attestations as to whether the participant has had symptoms, travelled out of the country, or has been in contact with anyone who has tested positive for COVID.

The contact information is so that correct information is available should the researcher be contacted by a city or county health department for contact tracing purposes if a positive test result is reported for a subject or research team member. Finally, all subjects are asked to read and sign a document (in addition to the consent form) that explains the increased protections the university has put in place for those coming to campus during the pandemic, including face coverings, social distancing when possible and additional protections depending on the type of research being conducted.

Exceptions

Kirstin Holzschuh, executive director of UH's Research Integrity and Oversight office said, "If there is a compelling justification – for example, a PI is conducting a long-term longitudinal study and missing data points might invalidate the study, or we are one of many research sites and are in jeopardy of losing funding because other (typically non-academic) sites are enrolling and we are not – the PI can contact the Research Integrity and Oversight office and request to use the procedures approved for Level 2 under Threat Level 1." But this also goes through a review process and requires a signed agreement by the investigator that they will follow all approved COVID procedures.

Better safe than sorry

There are always risks and benefits to participating in research, but what must be kept at the foreground of one's human subjects research is that we are considering volunteers. Research subjects must always weigh the risks and benefits of participating in research; a researcher must provide these risks and benefits in clear language that allows the subject to make an informed decision.

"During times of increased risk, such as a pandemic, the university must take further precautions to protect and inform our research subjects regarding the risks of being on campus during a pandemic. Research subjects and their commitment to the greater good fuel our research enterprise, and their safety is always paramount," said Holzschuh.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

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Self-driving pizza delivery goes live in Houston

Domino's and Nuro announced their partnership in 2019 — and now the robots are hitting the roads. Photo courtesy of Nuro

After announcing their partnership to work on pizza deliveries via self-driving robots in 2019, Dominos and Nuro have officially rolled out their technology to one part of town.

Beginning this week, if you place a prepaid order from Domino's in Woodland Heights (3209 Houston Ave.), you might have the option to have one of Nuro's R2 robot come to your door. This vehicle is the first do deliver completely autonomously without occupants with a regulatory approval by the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to a news release.

"We're excited to continue innovating the delivery experience for Domino's customers by testing autonomous delivery with Nuro in Houston," says Dennis Maloney, Domino's senior vice president and chief innovation officer, in the release. "There is still so much for our brand to learn about the autonomous delivery space. This program will allow us to better understand how customers respond to the deliveries, how they interact with the robot and how it affects store operations."

Orders placed at select dates and times will have the option to be delivered autonomously. Photo courtesy of Nuro

The Nuro deliveries will be available on select days and times, and users will be able to opt for the autonomous deliveries when they make their prepaid orders online. They will then receive a code via text message to use on the robot to open the hatch to retrieve their order.

"Nuro's mission is to better everyday life through robotics. Now, for the first time, we're launching real world, autonomous deliveries with R2 and Domino's," says Dave Ferguson, Nuro co-founder and president, in the release. "We're excited to introduce our autonomous delivery bots to a select set of Domino's customers in Houston. We can't wait to see what they think."

California-based Nuro has launched a few delivery pilots in Houston over the past few years, including the first Nuro pilot program with Kroger in March 2019, grocery delivery from Walmart that was revealed in December 2019, and pharmacy delivery that launched last summer.

From being located in a state open to rolling out new AV regulations to Houston's diversity — both in its inhabitants to its roadways, the Bayou City stood out to Nuro, says Sola Lawal, product operations manager at Nuro.

"As a company, we tried to find a city that would allow us to test a number of different things to figure out what really works and who it works for," Lawal says on an episode of the Houston Innovators Podcast. "It's hard to find cities that are better than Houston at enabling that level of testing."

Steam the episode here.

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