This message was sent to the Rockefeller community from the Office of the President on May 22, 2020 at 11:00 a.m.
Subject: COVID-19 update from the president
We are now a week away from Memorial Day and we are experiencing perhaps the best stretch of weather I can recall in the Northeast. I hope that you are managing to get out to enjoy it, while of course wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.
The New York City Open Streets Program, which closes certain streets to vehicular traffic daily to allow more room for recreation, is making this easier; the location nearest Rockefeller is East End Avenue between 83rd and 89th Streets, adjacent to Carl Schurz Park, open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. (For a list of other locations see the city’s website.)
This week a number of “low-risk” businesses and activities were allowed to reopen statewide, including landscaping services, drive-in movies, and tennis courts. Although that doesn’t change life for most of us, it does represent the first time that officials are reducing restrictions on activities. In addition, several upstate regions have now met the criteria for the first phase of reopening, allowing resumption of construction and manufacturing along with curbside retail. In parallel, there has been steady progress in NYC, with continued reductions in COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths, and further reductions in the percent of viral tests that are positive (2.7% in Manhattan the last two days compared to nearly 50% at the peak, and all boroughs 5.5% or less). These are very promising signs.
The Rockefeller University Research Restart Committee has made significant progress on our own reopening plans. Our plans are guided by an unwavering commitment to conducting our work safely, grounded in our culture that emphasizes a shared dedication to protect both ourselves and one another. Our prevention tools include strict social distancing, frequent hand-washing and disinfection of workspaces, and wearing masks in all public areas, along with viral testing and contact tracing. The guidelines for this phase of our reopening outline the ways in which the density of personnel on campus and the risk of person-to-person spread of virus will be minimized. These include people only being on campus to do work that can’t be done from home, using alternating shifts, reconfigured work spaces and traffic flow patterns, and occupancy limits in all work areas that enable minimum distances between individuals to be sustained while on campus. All events and meetings must be conducted by virtual conference. The details will vary from lab to lab, and I’ve asked all HOLs to submit plans for how they intend to meet the university’s guidelines, with a goal of reopening the labs at reduced density on June 1 provided that conditions warrant proceeding. Our success in maintaining a safe environment ultimately relies on each of our efforts to adhere to behaviors that we know work. I am confident that we have the tools, culture, and commitment to effectively protect one another as we move forward.
During this restart period, the CFC will not be open, and there will be no food service on campus. We expect to remain in phase 2 (we are considering our current status, with only essential work and COVID research active, to be phase 1) for at least four to six weeks, long enough to assess our progress. The final timelines will be determined by the conditions. We all need to lead by example and encourage our peers to comply when necessary. We have certainly seen in our neighborhoods the tragedies that can follow from COVID-19, and we have every reason to be extremely diligent in preventing further cases.
There are two developments this past week regarding our COVID research that I’d like bring to your attention. Last Friday, Michel Nussenzweig, Marina Caskey, Paul Bieniasz and colleagues submitted a paper for publication, also posted on bioRxiv, that presents data from their anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibody studies. The results identify highly potent monoclonal antibodies purified from patients who have recovered from COVID-19 that protect cells from infection with SARS-CoV-2 by binding to the receptor-binding domain of the viral Spike protein. Paul Bieniasz and Theodora Hatziioannou have also collaborated with the New York Blood Center to identify simple antibody tests that can identify plasma samples from patients who have recovered from COVID-19 that can prevent or treat infections in others, efforts that have the potential to markedly increase the utility of convalescent plasma.
I’m also pleased to announce that, thanks to excellent work by Shawn Davis and the Development office, in collaboration with Sid Strickland and Emily Harms in the Dean’s office, our June 11 Convocation promises to be a fantastic—if virtual—celebration of this year’s outstanding graduates. Although it won’t be possible to be together in Caspary as we normally would, we’ll be doing our best to replicate as much of the event as we can online to make it special and memorable for our students and their mentors and families. This year, we will also be honoring two recipients of honorary degrees: Marnie Pillsbury, a terrific emerita trustee and devoted supporter of Rockefeller who has been a part of our community for many decades; and Lucy Shapiro, a spectacular developmental biologist and geneticist from Stanford and a pioneer in systems biology and evolution. We will also honor two exceptional members of The Rockefeller University family with the David Rockefeller Award for Extraordinary Service: Torsten Wiesel, Nobel Laureate, former Rockefeller president and international statesman of science; and Alzatta Fogg, longtime manager of the Abby Dining Room and community stateswoman. I look forward to all of us celebrating the accomplishments of this year’s graduates and honorees.
Finally, I’d like to acknowledge the great work that has been done to keep the youngest members of our community engaged. Since the university’s closure, the Child and Family Center has launched a series of virtual initiatives to provide both continuity and intellectual stimulation to the children. They’ve been doing Zoom storytelling, circle times, and music and art instruction, among other activities, all led by the CFC teachers the kids already know and love. It’s an opportunity for our youngest students to stay in touch with their teachers and friends as well as to learn new songs and, for the older preschoolers, practice basic skills. See a photo below of students and teachers from the Green Room.
With all best wishes,
Richard P. Lifton, M.D., Ph.D.
Carson Family Professor
Laboratory of Human Genetics and Genomics
The Rockefeller University