In order to contain a viral outbreak such as the ongoing COVID-19 coronavirus, labs and healthcare facilities must incorporate several important features into their design or retrofit plans. Certain safety standards need to be met, which means that equipment may have to be replaced or reconfigured. There are, of course, no universal answers, as all facilities have different needs and challenges, but there are some general points that project teams should consider.
“The first step in determining isolation and containment is the biological safety level designated to a given type of research. For the most part, that is already known to the researcher when they start to plan out their research,” says Matt Benson, director of marketing and business development for OnePointe Solutions. “If the existing research space doesn't meet the biosafety (BSL) standards, they will have to consult with the nearby available facilities to determine if there is space open on the premises, or consult with a contract research organization (CRO) that meets the BSL standard. If the viral outbreak for some reason doesn't require special biosafety restrictions, it is wise to designate an area and set of ventilation devices (fume hoods, snorkels) dedicated to that research. A third option is to purchase standalone biosafety cabinets or build a dedicated biosafety space at the existing facility via a lab design and construction company.”
The current COVID-19 virus is thought to spread predominantly by large droplet transfer; therefore, proper handwashing and hygiene are the most important ways to combat the spread of the illness. Of course, as in any hospital or healthcare facility, the HVAC system also plays a role in keeping people safe and healthy. “HVAC systems with HEPA filtration and a material like anodized aluminum or stainless steel that won't flake or give off particulate matter is required for biosafety/viral research environments,” says Benson. “Constructing or outfitting an existing system like this will require coordination with facilities management and an HVAC contractor.”
Is a separate gowning area or anteroom necessary for staff? Are air showers and eyewash stations necessary? “Absolutely—it is always necessary to have a gowning area that is complete with stainless steel benches and storage units,” replies Benson. “Eyewashes are necessary in case of emergencies, but these are commonplace in all wet labs regardless of biosafety level.”
As hospitals and healthcare centers around the US rush to establish safe, spacious areas to treat COVID-19 victims, there’s the question of whether it’s better to use an existing facility or to utilize something such as a pre-fab facility outside of the main building. Neither choice is wrong, says Benson, “but it will come down to the budget, timeline, and logistics. Altering an existing non-biosafety compliant facility with the proper HEPA filtration HVAC system, separate research and gowning areas, is a costly project, especially considering these facilities will likely be under a large workload in a crisis/pandemic, making construction even more difficult.”
Benson also advises, “All of these answers/recommendations are generalities, and should always be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.” It’s crucial, therefore, for healthcare professionals to confer with their design/build teams to decide the best possible approach to keeping patients and healthcare staff as safe and healthy as possible.