Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess addressed questions today about the County’s preparedness for an outbreak of COVID-19 – detailing the County’s communications with employees in the last week and commenting on wide-scale emergency preparedness activities that are underway in Los Alamos in conjunction with directives being issued by the State of New Mexico Department of Health.
“Los Alamos County employs nearly 800 full-time, temporary or casual labor employees to keep day to day operations running smoothly,” Burgess said, “Many of our employees are involved in daily routines ranging from driving Atomic City Transit buses, issuing permits and licenses, taking payments and making facility reservations, or providing other kinds of customer service. Many of our activities involve interaction with the public, however, other activities aren’t always within the public view, yet critical to our business operations. Our communication with employees over the last week has been to mirror messages from the Centers for Disease Control about taking care of themselves to avoid becoming sick or spreading sickness to others. Like most messages already being shared out locally, we’re emphasizing the need for good hygiene to keep our County facilities as germ-free as possible. But beyond that, we’re also working on plans that would address any shortages in staffing, should COVID-19 enter Los Alamos.”
As an example of preparedness activities taking place within County government right now, Burgess said that he has issued a memo to all employees that outlined the following temporary administrative changes to address COVID-19 or other flu-like viruses:
- During the next 90 days, medical certifications will not be required if employees are sick and need to stay home. Typically, a doctor’s note is required after the third day that an employee is absent from work.
- Supervisors have been directed to allow use of any leave banks an employee has available (starting with sick leave, but then with the ability to draw down annual leave) for illness. Typically, use of annual leave to extend sick leave is discretionary at the supervisory level.
- For employees with no current leave balances, or casual labor or temporary employees who do not earn leave, department managers can consider leave without pay in situations where employees are sick or must care for family members who are sick. Typically, leave without pay can only be approved by the County Manager.
Burgess said he emphasized in a meeting about COVID-19 preparedness and planning held last week with department managers that the goal is to ensure that County operations can continue with minimal or no disruption.
“I asked our department directors to begin planning now within each division to look at staffing levels, talk to their employees, and consider ways to provide coverage if we see staffing shortages due to illness or other planned leave,” he said, adding that options could include moving employees from one division to another for desk or phone coverage, asking for assistance from another division who may have employees who could help cover tasks, or, making changes to temporarily extend work hours, provide a flex schedule, or offer weekend work shifts to maintain coverage – especially in those areas that may not be staffed with more than one or two employees.
“We have many options that we can consider to keep things running smoothly, but we need to be thinking ahead about what might occur if we start to see COVID-19 impact County operations. I encouraged everyone to be flexible, work together as a team, and find alternatives to prevent any interruption in County services,” Burgess said.
At this time, the County does not have plans to cancel large event gatherings, or to close County facilities, although Burgess said he would be prepared to take further steps to do so, in alignment with planning and further direction from the State’s Department of Health (DOH).
“Our Emergency Management Office is actively monitoring updates at the local and State level and will continue to keep me informed,” he said. “We’ve increased cleaning in our facilities to keep items like work areas, desks, phones, door handles and so forth cleaned and we’ve stocked facilities with alcohol-based hand sanitizers and bleach wipes so our employees can help keep their individual areas clean. Our Purchasing staff are working with vendors to monitor quantities of items like these that are already in high demand nation-wide, with a goal to keep up with supply levels, assess availability, and combat long lead times to replace them.”
Burgess said that he’s encouraged employees to stay up to date on the rapidly evolving situation at the State and Federal level.
“We’ve shared out CDC information that is readily available on the internet and posted reminders about preventive practices on our internal employee intranet. We’re sharing out messages from our employee-based Wellness Committee, along with posting information on COVID-19, preventative practices and other info in common work areas. The current situation with COVID-19 is definitely a part of frequent discussions in staff meetings as we strive to keep our employees updated about the situation,” he said.
At this point, Burgess said the main focus is to closely monitor the situation and stay in constant contact with the State DOH. To date, that two-way communication has been very thorough and cooperative, he said.
“Last week, several of us from cities and counties around New Mexico were part of a comprehensive, state-wide briefing in a conference call with DOH,” Burgess said, adding that communication has been very proactive and responsive among all of the local governments.
“COVID-19 is spreading rapidly across the U.S. It’s not here in New Mexico, yet, but it’s likely that we will see it emerging soon. We’ll be ready to take action if that happens. Everyone in local government is getting ready to respond. We realize how serious this could become for New Mexico and our County residents, and we’re all pulling together to keep on top of this rapidly evolving situation,” Burgess said.