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Highlighting Maureen Kotlas, Executive Director, UMD ESSR

Maureen Kotlas - Department of Environmental Safety, Sustainability & Risk (ESSR)

1. Briefly describe your role for those who are unfamiliar with what you oversee at UMD. What is your connection to the Biosafety team?

My position is Executive Director of Environmental Safety, Sustainability & Risk. In this role, I oversee five campus-wide programs. We refer to these as offices and they include research safety, risk management and occupational safety and health, fire marshal, environmental affairs, and sustainability. Biosafety is a part of the Office of Research Safety.

2. When is the first time you realized COVID-19 was going to be different or more serious than any previous crises?

I've been involved in bioterrorism and pandemic planning for much of my career. In January and February as the outbreak in China expanded, UMD began to have meetings to review preparedness actions. This was followed by a tabletop exercise at UMD and one hosted by the University System of Maryland. This all seemed normal based on past experiences in preparedness planning. When the speed at which this virus was spreading became apparent, I realized this was different. When the WHO began monitoring conditions for a possible pandemic, I knew we were facing unchartered territory.

3. How did the Biosafety team assist with planning and response? Did you learn anything new or surprising about the field of Biosafety in this experience?

The Biosafety Team was a great help in determining and evaluating cleaning and disinfection procedures o the earlier months of the pandemic. Departments were looking for guidance on the types of disinfectant products to use. The Biosafety team provided scientific studies to help us select the best type of products and how they should be used including emphasizing the importance of contact time with surfaces. Biosafety has also been instrumental in assisting with protocols for COVID-19 research. I think we all recognize that science will lead us out of this pandemic.

4. What were some strategies that you used for more rapid decision-making in such a fast-changing environment?

I gather as much information and data as I can. When time permits, I discuss ideas and options with others who have knowledge and experience in the subject. I am regularly reading scientific studies and reviewing the CDC, WHO, EPA and OSHA websites to look for the latest information and changes to guidance. I believe decision-making requires a combination of knowledge, using sound judgement, tapping into intuition, and always challenging your thinking.

5. How can Research Safety professionals continue to fill key functions while working remotely? Has your team had any notable successes during this time?

Rather than tell our staff how to do their work remotely, I want to hear how they propose to do their work and what they need to be successful. There is no rule book. We are all trying to figure out how to make this work. I'd say we are doing an impressive job in keeping our programs running and providing essential services and consultation to the university in a time of great challenge. We've had to answer many questions that seem to be unanswerable. When we look back on this point in time, I believe we'll all be proud of our accomplishments during this pandemic, the first in a hundred years.