Director’s Blog 3/13/20

Director’s Blog Post by Ian Billick, PhD

Friday, March 13, 2020

Field Science in the Spring (Summer… Fall….Year(s)) of Coronavirus?

As we teach in our courses, the exponential growth of disease transmission can be hard to comprehend much less plan around.  What made sense yesterday can be foolhardy within days.

How is RMBL approaching the coronavirus?

We will communicate.  We are updating our webpage regularly with information specific to RMBL; we will be posting FAQ’s for students on the webpage soon.  Our site includes links to information from Gunnison County, the state of Colorado, and the CDC.   The state includes regular updates on the number and location of coronavirus cases.  When there are significant changes or decisions, we will post them to the PI listserv.  We will be responsive to individual queries by email and phone.

We will be flexible.  Not only are things changing quickly, but you are navigating complicated personal and professional lives.  Beyond dealing with the possibility or reality of your own sickness, you may be pressed to help family, friends, and community.  It may be unclear how your home institution will handle travel.  We will waive cancellation fees, including reimbursing student deposits, for any coronavirus-related change of plans.  We will leave it to you to tell us whether your cancellation is coronavirus related.  We will do our best to accommodate any other needed last-minute assistance.

We will do our best to avoid moving too slowly, ……. Or too quickly.  We are planning for summer as normal, accepting students and processing research applications.  But any decision/outcome is on the table, from business as normal, to heightened cleaning, to social distancing in Gothic (no seminars or cricket games??), to strict restrictions on summer visitation.  The main prediction I will make is that right now we have little idea what summer will bring.

Currently we have time, with about two months before we would normally see a big uptick in visitation to RMBL.  China looks like a best-case scenario, involving about 3 weeks from an initial diagnosis to the peak number of cases (with no guarantee China won’t see a second wave).  Italy looks like a worse-case scenario, with an overwhelmed health care system and slower to impose strict social distancing.  Italy is about 2 weeks in with no evidence they have hit their peak.  The US is under two weeks in.  We will know a great deal more with every week that passes.

We will put you first!  RMBL is here for the long haul.  Whether you are a long-time community member or hope to visit for your first summer, you are our family.  We will move forward within a legal and ethical framework that prioritizes how we can best support you in challenging times.  Whether you are worried about institutional travel plans, losing a critical field season as part of your thesis, or the loss of critical summer income as an REU student to pay school bills or support the family, we will do our best to support your needs.

What does it look like at RMBL right now?  There are about 40 coronavirus cases in Colorado, with about 5 confirmed in Gunnison County.  These are underestimates because, like across the country, the local hospital lacks testing kits, a problem I expect/hope will be remedied by this weekend.  With a small local hospital, the Governor has suggested, for the time being, that individuals over 60 or with underlying conditions avoid travel to Crested Butte, and similar high mountain resort communities.  The local schools are closed for at least two weeks and the local community emergency response are actively coordinating.  RMBL is allowing staff to take additional time off as they need to deal with sickness or family, and supporting people working from home.

I will close by repeating that the world is only going to need more from field scientists and RMBL, whether we are talking about population growth, climate change, food, or disease.  Coronavirus, and ultimately human health, emerges from the interface between humans and the environment.  What you all do as field scientists matters.  RMBL will do everything we can to support your work and accelerate discovery, both in our short-term response to coronavirus, and our long-term institutional planning.

As always, don’t hesitate to reach out with questions, or just to let us know how you are doing, mentally as well as physically!  I’m always curious to know what you are thinking about when it comes to RMBL, and appreciate suggestions for blog topics.  You will hear more from us as we get closer to summer!