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March 31, 2020: Practicing Physical Distancing and Bringing Our Science to Combat COVID-19

Our lives are radically different from what they were just weeks ago. Most of the activities that made up the rhythm of our days — going to work, seeing friends and family, traveling, communing with others — have ceased in support of the newest term in our lexicon: “social (or physical) distancing.” While this is profoundly difficult for us, we understand its necessity. Our thoughts are with everyone around the country caring for people and protecting public health, whether at work, out in the community or at home.

At NCATS, I have made it clear that the safety and well-being of our staff and their families is of primary importance. In support of this effort, we rapidly transitioned to telework across all extramural and administrative divisions and offices two weeks ago, and nearly all staff are working from home and are expected to do so through May 1. This took some adjustment, particularly at NCATS, where virtually everything we do involves teamwork. But we are as adaptable as we are social, and we have quickly become more adept at virtual meetings on Zoom, WebEx, Slack, Skype, Teams, Box and myriad other platforms with odd names. We often decry how these technologies have driven us apart, but now they are our lifeline — keeping us together. We are hosting daily virtual huddles with key staff to discuss emerging issues and coordinate operations and responses. We are holding a weekly NCATS virtual town hall meeting for staff, where updates are provided on the pandemic and our response to it, and where questions are asked and answered.

I also have been concerned about the thousands of NCATS grantees across the country who have been equally or even more affected by the pandemic, and we are doing everything we can to support them. At NCATS, and across NIH, we are providing maximum flexibility to address funding, reporting and deadline issues. This site is particularly helpful, and I urge our current and prospective grantees to refer to it frequently, as well as read this recent update.

We have turned our attention toward marshaling the amazing NCATS engine of innovation to overcome this pandemic. We are working closely with our CTSA Program grantees to rapidly share insights across major medical centers at various stages of the pandemic, swiftly initiate and support clinical research that will help determine how to detect and treat patients with COVID-19, and collaborate with our colleagues at the United States Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute and elsewhere. We are leveraging the power of our preclinical drug development to address COVID-19, both in NCATS’ intramural laboratories and across the country. I will write more in the coming weeks about these NCATS-supported COVID-19 research activities.

This pandemic is a rapidly evolving situation, we are working closely with NIH leadership to provide updated guidance and information as it becomes available. I urge you to follow the CDC guidance about COVID-19 to prevent illness and recognize the symptoms and to visit the NIH coronavirus (COVID-19) website for information and resources from the NIH.

As I have told NCATS scientists and staff, we will get through this together, healthy, but only if we are apart for now. Please stay distanced, stay well and keep in touch.

Christopher P. Austin, M.D.
National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences