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UPDATE: How USAP is responding to COVID-19 challenges and planning for the upcoming season


April 27, 2020

NSF is committed to being supportive and as responsive as possible to the needs of the research community in the face of challenges posed by the global COVID-19 pandemic.  Please consult the NSF website regularly for up-to-date information and answers to Frequently Asked Questions: https://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/coronavirus/.

The Office of Polar Programs (OPP) recognizes the particular challenges that COVID-19 poses for the Antarctic research community and wishes to update you with the following additional information. 

All three USAP Antarctic Stations continue operating safely, and no indications of the virus have been detected.  Intercontinental flights transporting non-winter crew out of McMurdo Station were completed as planned in April, and one additional flight is anticipated in May to place the station into winter status.  The research vessel RVIB Nathaniel B. Palmer is transiting North to the United States to ensure the safe transport of science samples collected during the recently completed research season. We are continuing to evaluate protocols and options for safely deploying the winter crew to Palmer Station to relieve the summer crew.

Additionally, to ensure the health and safety of all USAP participants, we have modified the Physical Qualification (PQ) requirements for USAP deployers to incorporate the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines regarding individuals who are at higher risk of severe illness from the virus. 

We face several unique challenges as we plan for the upcoming season:

  • Opening each station from its winter-over period will have to be managed very carefully to avoid exposing existing crews to the virus and to ensure new crews do not carry the virus to the stations. The pace of activity at the start of this season is likely to be slower than normal.
  • Protocols required to ensure the virus is not transported to our stations include testing and very stringent isolation measures over several weeks. The number of deployers that we can safely accommodate in this way will be limited.
  • The stricter PQ guidelines will present challenges for the recruitment of our seasonal workforce.
  • Authorities around the world have issued travel restrictions that may persist for some time and make it more difficult to arrange reliable commercial itineraries.
  • Restrictions deemed necessary by other National Antarctic Programs to protect their personnel will impact our ability to move people and equipment. 

In light of these challenges, we are adopting a tiered set of priorities to guide our planning. 

Tier 1 Activities – Our first priority must be to ensure the safe and continuous operation of all three USAP stations, and to resupply them for the winter period that will begin in February of 2021.  This not only ensures the continued health and safety of our deployed USAP community, but also ensures that we can continue to support a world-leading science program well beyond the timeline of COVID-19 impacts. 

Tier 2 Activities – Whenever possible, we want to minimize negative impacts on science, construction, and future operations. Priority will be given to activities that must be completed to avoid irreversible damage to science or operational infrastructure.  This will allow us to protect our investments and ensure their continued viability.

Tier 3 Activities – We will be assessing the feasibility of support for all austral summer 2020/21 activities that are not included in the two tiers discussed above. We will reach out to participants as soon as possible to discuss options and mitigation of impacts in the event of deferrals.  If Principal Investigators already know that deferral is needed as a result of personal circumstances, please contact your program officer right away to make that known.

Over the next six weeks, we will be reviewing the activities and resources associated with each tier so that we can provide the community with an update in the beginning of June.  In the meanwhile, you are encouraged to reach out to your program officer to discuss the specific challenges you are facing. We are here to help, and your input is important.

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2020 budget of $8.3 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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