The Training Page: Commentary


Learning As We Go Along: Reflections on Returning to Work During a Pandemic

I woke up on Monday morning, June 22, feeling excited and nervous. It felt like the first day of school after a long summer break. I had been on a long break—since March 16 when the COVID-19 pandemic forced most NIH labs and offices to shut down.

Most of us had been teleworking during this time. But here I was, part of Group A, the first employees allowed to return to campus. Before leaving my apartment, I triple-checked my bag to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything. Preparing to go to work was a ritual I had not practiced in a while: phone, check; wallet, check; laptop, check; Metro card, check; earbuds, check; water bottle, check; lunch, check. And facemask. Let’s not forget that!

Wearing my mask, I joined a few other riders on the Metro. Before the pandemic, the train would have been packed, and I would have been swept into a dense sea of commuters trying to exit at the Medical Center stop. Today, only four of us got off at the station.

At the NIH entry gate, I scanned my badge and walked through the turnstile, marking the first time I had set foot on campus in four months. As I headed to Building 37, I felt as if I were walking through a ghost town with empty parking lots and few signs of life. Posted signs urged me to go home immediately if I had any symptoms of COVID-19. Stepping into the elevator, I paused. Which floor was it? Muscle memory had failed me. It was a brief but common occurrence throughout my week as I adjusted to being back.

The first things I did when I walked into the lab were wash my hands and sanitize my workspace. I swapped out my homemade fabric mask for a disposable surgical one. I was briefed on new waste-disposal protocols to reduce risks to custodial staff. I learned that rooms and equipment used by multiple labs now required advance sign-ups.

The first few weeks back were a learning experience for both me and those organizing the return. Every few days I would come to work and encounter a new safety measure. One day the door to my lab was outfitted with a plastic forearm shield so you could open the door with your arm instead of your hands. Another day, stickers appeared on the elevator floor at opposite corners to mark where people should stand to avoid being too close to one another. Soon, we even had to complete a daily self-assessment to report whether we had COVID-19 symptoms or had been exposed to someone who had, or was suspecting of having, the disease. Anyone who responded “yes” was instructed not to return to work, to notify their supervisor, and to fill out an Occupational Medical Service screening form.

The most exciting (and riskiest) part of returning to work was finally being able to see my co-workers. With campus at 30% capacity, the only other person in lab with me was our research biologist. He and I did our best to stay at least six feet apart while navigating the lab space and using shared equipment. The only time we would talk to one another was to discuss results.

Eating lunch with co-workers was reimagined as well. Before the pandemic, we would squeeze around a small table, and as we ate our lunch, we’d vent about failed experiments or laugh at funny videos. On my first day back, however, the few of us who were part of Group A sat outside, spaced at least six-feet apart, around a gazebo behind Building 35. We ate quietly with our masks off but grew livelier once we finished eating and had our masks back on. Squinted eyes signaled smiles from behind masks as we discussed everything from new hobbies picked up while working from home to our plans for applying to grad school.

With Group B’s return the week of July 20, there were noticeable differences on campus. There were more people getting off the Metro at Medical Center. Three people at a time are allowed in my lab now, and we often make small talk from opposite corners of the lab. As time went on, everyone grew more comfortable interacting at work. I saw more people eating together outside (while maintaining the proper distance from each other) and chatting in the hallways.

Although working at the NIH looks very different from when I started a year ago, I’m thankful to be working among scientists who continue to do important work while maintaining a safe environment.

 Lily Nguyen

Lily Nguyen is a postbaccalaureate fellow in the National Cancer Institute’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology. After she completes her training in 2021, she hopes to go to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in molecular biology. In her spare time, she’s an avid TV and movie watcher and enjoys going to picturesque places and documenting them on film.