Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess during Tuesday’s Los Alamos County Council meeting. Photo by Maire O’Neill/losalamosreporter.com
BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess briefed County Councilors Tuesday evening at their regular meeting on the County’s status with regard to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).
“Obviously we’re talking about it tonight. Many people are thinking about it, not only in this room but all across the nation and the world,” Burgess said.
He noted that the County has an Emergency Operations Plan that largely focuses on management of a crisis. It’s an all hazards plan so it’s designated to handle natural as well as technological hazards – everything from a typical release to a tornado to a snowstorm.
“It really defines lines of authority and resources – how we might find such resources. It also focuses on County operations and I think that’s important for this conversation because on a daily basis we don’t necessarily address medical issues beyond our fire department with our EMS and first response types of activities,” Burgess said. He said similar to the County, schools, Department of Transportation, the state and hospitals throughout the state also develop their own plans and submit them for approval.
“In this state for medical emergencies, the main response would be from the New Mexico Department of Health and they coordinate their response with individual hospitals who coordinate with local providers. So there is a network in place for addressing specific medical ideas or issues,” he said. “However we would interface with that obviously through transportation, evacuation in some cases, delivery of patients to the hospital, also in continuity of operations – making sure that the hospital has utilities to operate, that it has security.”
Burgess said during the evacuation (for the Los Conchas Fire) the County provided security in the form of not letting folks come back into the community until the hospital was ready to accommodate their needs. He said the different agencies work together often towards the fulfillment of their normal regular duties and the County doesn’t have a specific medical response plan because it doesn’t normally provide medical response beyond the EMS type of activity.
“That’s not saying we don’t work with those providers because we do. In fact each of those plans, whether it be the schools, the hospital, the Laboratory, DOT, all have a requirement to exercise those plans on an annual basis at a minimum,” he said. “In some cases it’s a full-scale once a year with other minor exercises interspersed between. We have the benefit here locally that the (Los Alamos National) Laboratory does a lot of planning and exercising and often the other entities in the community jump on board when they do an exercise and role play with them so that all the agencies are working together and all agencies get credit for exercising their plans.”
Burgess said that’s basically what happens in Los Alamos and in other communities on a regular basis.
“We have had those activities ongoing for as long as I’ve been here. There have been various exercises but they’re just not the most published thing. In fact they happen fairly often in this community compared to other communities that I’ve been in,” he said. “That being said, there’s no doubt that we have some identified risks given the fact that many of our community members do travel probably more than some other communities obviously with the presence of the Lab and other businesses in the area who send their employees to various countries. That’s a risk as well for us. I think we’re probably more exposed than some other communities in the state due to that level of activity.”
Burgess said back in early January when the coronavirus issue was identified, conversations began locally.
“The Lab had a meeting to talk about those who were traveling to foreign countries and how they were dealing with that. In our case, it was voluntary quarantines that they were asking their employees to submit to when they returned, particularly from China but also other countries of concern and then there have been limitations on travel to both China and Italy put in place by the Laboratory. I’m not familiar with other businesses in the community that have put such restrictions on their employees yet,” he said.
Burgess addressed a statewide Department of Health conference call Tuesday to address the issue.
“I would say it’s an evolving planning environment because this being a fairly new illness and we’re learning more about its incubation period and other aspects of it. We don’t know yet if heat will kill it, those types of things. It’s evolving as we go and I do anticipate our response will be evolving as well,” he said.
Burgess said the County will focus on the maintenance of the services it provides which would be everything from law enforcement to keeping the streets clean, and keeping (the Municipal Building) open. He said as things evolve, the County might consider certain closures.
“Unlike other entities, they’re going to be more like our snow closures where we’re the last people here closing the door because we have to provide those essential services, primarily utilities, law enforcement, streets and such so that our community can continue to function,” he said.
Depending on what occurs, Burgess said the County could choose to close recreational facilities, the library or transportation that could be closed without taking away public safety, utilities and the like. He said the County is developing a way to backfill those positions in times of illness.
“Let’s say half of our utility department for example is out sick, what do we do to continue to have the right number of people to manage those issues. And that is an emerging consideration right now because we don’t know exactly what the impact will be,” he said.
Burgess noted that a meeting is planned next week for representatives from Los Alamos Medical Center, LANL and the County to take the conversation a step further but that he anticipates broadening that a little bit in subsequent meetings to include other entities in the community.
“There has been a lot of information put out to date. The easy response is, ‘let’s get our own message out’. We’re crafting something specific to send to our employees to talk about things like, if you’re sick don’t come to work. It’s the same thing we normally do with the flu when we want to prevent these types of things. There have been some suggestions we’re going to have to look at through our Human Resources office to see if there’s ways to maybe mitigate some of the barriers to utilizing sick leave or other types of things so it’s just something easily accessed. We’ll be having those meetings as we progress as well,” Burgess said.
He said in all my conversations, the one thing that stuck with him is that many entities have put out a variety of statements but the bottom line is many of them are copying or directing people to the CDC website which is updated many times a day.
“If you’re looking for information, look to that website first because most of others in the nation today are copying a lot of that information and rather than recreate that, we anticipate doing the same thing so that we can keep the most up-to-date information for our community. We have updated our webpage to direct people to that and as we find out more information I’ll be glad to share it in this forum but obviously we will be communicating with our staff as well as the public when we have more to share,” Burgess said.
The link to the Department of Health website is https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.