BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos County provided the public the opportunity Tuesday to hear their regular meeting without video Tuesday evening while observing the Attorney General’s COVID-19 guidelines under Open Meetings Act. Although there was also a consent agenda of items to be approved, most of the meeting was devoted to a situational uppresentation by County Manager Harry Burgess on the COVID-19 in relation to the County.
Burgess said it was interesting to think about that it was just two weeks ago today that the County implemented policies with respect to the COVID-19 virus that ultimately resulted in sending as many employees as possible home in accordance with the governor’s direction.
“At that time we put together a policy to cover this issue and that included procedures to allow for teleworking as well as for other positions that were deemed to be non-essential for our operations. We enacted emergency leave that allowed them to be home and ultimately attempted to maintain or have achieved maintenance of all our employees’ salaries,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that our employees were kept whole during this.”
He said the policy was circulated to and signed for by employees and department directors began directing staff as to what they were to do.
“ It’s only a part of the County staff because so many of our personnel are in essential positions that are required to be there to allow the community to continue to function. This ranges from law enforcement, fire and EMS personnel to our utility personnel and many other offices that support those positions and function as well from administration to our finance and procurement. Obviously payroll still have a lot of activities that require people to be present. However, we’ve reduced that number by 70-75 percent that are physically present at work these days,” Burgess said.
He said the County attempted to maintain levels of pay but also consistency with recovery requirements because potential full reimbursement of some of the costs is expected going forward.
“Having been in another disaster previously, the County was prepared for that potential eventuality and had instituted processes to make sure that we recorded all of our expenditures related to this emergency specifically as were defined in the recent federal action and ultimately anticipating reimbursement of the costs directly associated with the COVID emergency,” Burgess said.
This was consistent with what the schools had done which at the time was to close until April 6, Burgess said adding that he is preparing to communicate with employees before April 6 to notify them that the April 6 date will be pushed out to April 30.
“I’m trying, in the same directive, to be consistent with the recent federal guidance in both the Families First Act and the Cares Act which provide guidance for reporting what things are reimbursable and added some new protections for our employees including additional family medical leave and a certain amount of pay for whenever someone has to isolate themselves,” he said.
Burgess said as the County continues to monitor and see what occurs in the future, obviously that date could be extended depending on situational needs.
“We’ve asked the public to call ahead when you need to visit one of our offices to make sure our individuals are there. The Municipal Building is still open for people coming in to conduct business whether that is seeking a building permit, having questions about their taxes or to communicate with our personnel,” he said.
Burgess said he finds it interesting in the list of essential services, construction services are deemed essential and that the County plays play a role in that construction including building permit to the inspections so personnel are needed to support those activities while they’re still occurring but that the number of people in offices is minimized to the extent possible.
“There is some new information with respect to how planning is changing right now. This is a different emergency situation than any of us have been in in our lifetimes. We have experienced other disasters in the past such as wildfires and last year’s disaster with the bomb cycle but this disaster is quite different in the response and the continuation of the situation itself,” Burgess said. “We’ve enacted these measures and we haven’t yet seen the full brunt of this and we are waiting to essentially be ready to respond to this event trying to have the personnel ready when it does occur. Part of this is sending our people home because then individuals can hopefully remain healthy and hopefully be ready to come back to their various positions whenever the conditions warrant.”
The state declared a disaster and the County implemented certain directives under state authority, he said. He noted that many people have asked about planning efforts and that the County has an Emergency Operations Plan that’s been used obviously in the past. Council Chair Sara Scott signed a local disaster declaration to enable emergency provisions to be in place for federal funding and additional resources as needed. Burgess said the EOP was not well aligned because the last similar emergency was in 1918 so there were no specific elements in the plan for a pandemic. The County’s Emergency Management coordinator Bev Simpson has since put together a pandemic annex to the plan which has not yet come before Council for approval given everything else that County is working on, Burgess said.
He noted that Simpson is tied into a group that meets daily to discuss updates, data, levels of emergence of various communities and to share information that often makes its way to the state level and is part of the planning as well.
EMERGENCY PLANNING AND READINESS LEVELS
Burgess said people have been asking questions about County’s emergency planning and readiness levels adding that the majority of comments have focused on the areas of shelter, masks and business support. He said often there’s a question in people’s minds about why the County hasn’t done something and that there is a reason for that particularly with respect to sheltering.
“In the Emergency Operations Plan, we have six identified locations for shelters. They are four churches as well as the Los Alamos Middle School and Los Alamos High School. Those six locaions have been previously reviewed by the Red Cross for their compatibility to sheltering operations – that means having adequate utilities, infrastructure to support housing people such as bathrooms, operating mechanical equipment and ADA access. We’ve got those in mind however we have not opened them yet because we haven’t had the need and obviously to do so does require resources,” Burgess said.
He said a pandemic is a little different situation than a wildfire where sheltering can be a necessity if people’s houses burn down.
“Largely for this event people are sheltering in their homes. We do not expect their homes to be no longer present due to the disaster, instead, to date, the medical community has recommended that people just stay in their homes either for isolation purposes or to address infection when it is not something that they need to be in the hospital for yet overwhelming the hospitals,” Burgess said. “The need for sheltering is a little different in this particular event. In fact, what many people are seeing nationwide are tents set up outside hospitals. The reason that they are set up in that location is that in order to help those that need help, it’s not just the physical roof and bed but it’s the medical personnel that are necessary to address people’s needs.”
Burgess said having congregate facilities near the medical center allows for the same medical personnel already at the hospitals to potentially address a broader range of patients while they are in close proximity to the hospital as opposed to being in other locations throughout the community.
“We have two large tents and 93 cots in our cache for emergency operations and are waiting on direction on how to deploy those. Ms Simpson has been discussing it with the hospital and the Department of Health but without the current need and without the known impact and the availability of medical personnel we have not gone to active offsite shelter locations because to do so one would have to bring in medical personnel that may be at home isolating themselves,”
About the six proposed locations, Burgess said Simpson has been in touch with Los Alamos Medical Center and the Red Cross.
“With this event, there have been some additional requirements placed on us. We do have our shelter facilities identified in our plan and we have the Red Cross identified as the shelter manager but there’s an extra layer of review through the Corps of Engineers. So in order to ready for activation of the shelter Simpson has already reached out to the Red Cross to update their assessment of particularly the high school gymnasium which was chosen because it’s closest in proximity. Once the Red Cross do their assessment they will have to submit their findings to the Corps of Engineeers who will issue a certificate to make the location available for congregate care,” Burgess said.
He said he hoped to have the certificate ready by the end of the week well in advance of the anticipated surge necessary for the County to potentially shelter personnel.
“However, that’s not the only issue, we have the cots I mentioned but we don’t have beds like a hospital might have. We don’t have individual rooms as WHO has suggested in various publications and we don’t have large-scale filtration units for that location,” Burgess said. “We are in conversation with the state and the governor has stepped out and asked the federal government for an army field hospital consisting of some 250+ beds. During the governor’s news conference it was noted that the President has approved such a request so there will be a field hospital coming to New Mexico to be set up in a place yet to be determined. A lot of this response is data driven and so they are not going to choose where to set it up until they know where the greatest need is. It will likely be one of our larger communities in the state, most likely Albuquerque given the rates of infection statewide.”
Burgess noted the DOH is going to be able to move physical resources around as well as medical personnel as they have a call-out list commonly known as New Mexico Serves that has retired doctors, nurses and other volunteers available for staffing if needed.
“The infrastructure is in place to address these things. They have not been activated yet because the state is still waiting on determining where that need is,” he said.
With respect to the resources Burgess said he understood the CDC is altering their advice on the wearing of face masks although nothing definitive has come out yet.
“We have had members of the community concerned about individuals not wearing masks and I think that’s a debate occurring in the medical community right now any may be changed as many other things have been changed throughout this event. The important thing to realize is that many of the directives have been using the state authority and not the local authorities and Los Alamos County doesn’t necessarily have the authority to invoke certain orders such as everyone must wear a mask,” Burgess said. “That’s something that our community members could adopt and to date this has been something argued against because of the necessary availability of these masks for medical personnel instead to the general public. That’s something we will see some changes in advice on fairly quickly and then hopefully up with the supplies that are necessary to meet that need.”
Burgess addressed what he called an unfortunate event – the break-ins at a number of businesses right in the middle of everything else those businesses are dealing with, particularly closures and lack of revenue.
“Our police officers were out patrolling and were able to respond to the first reported location in less than five minutes. In fact, it appeared that they were very close in following up on various locations that were hit. Unfortunately we did not apprehend the subjects however there is video and other information regarding these cases that the police officers are certainly following up on,” he said.
He said there have been some enquiries as to how the County can help local businesses.
“We do this a lot and we hate to use it as a crutch but we are limited in what we can do for local businesses and local individual due to the state Anti-Donation Act. However we have been looking at other means that we might be able to do to support these businesses. We’ve had some ideas from both the chamber of commerce and individuals,” Burgess said. He noted that at the same time there are a number of federal and state programs and the chamber of commerce has been pushing information out to their members and the business community about how they might access low interest loans and other provisions that have been recently enacted.”
Burgess noted that businesses have also been affected by the closure order from the governor. He said he has been receiving emails from folks concerned about a certain business being open when they are concerned they should not be.
“The governor’s order with respect to closing these businesses gave the power to a number of state agencies and not to local agencies. We will take those calls but we don’t have the authority to walk in and close the business, however the state police has reached out to our local police department to ask them to follow up on a variety of these complaints and just discuss the issue with the business owners in hopes of rectifying it without it coming to a more legal intervention,” he said. “The state police has an advertised email address for anybody that wants to report any business that may be open when they should not be. “
Burgess said progressing into the summer months there’s a couple of events the County will have to contemplate, particularly Summer Concert Series, Science Fest and the July 4 celebration, as they all involve large gatherings of people and food. He said at present he is taking a wait and see attitude – waiting to get closer to the event dates before making decisions to see how things progress within the state.
Burgess said that for the Fire Department’s efforts to maintain their level of service, their response to COVID-19 is only one of their main responsibilities.
“Obviously we’re entering fire season as we were reminded by a lot of the high winds this last weekend so they’re trying to maintain their personnel readiness so that they can respond readily to these medical emergencies and other things in their purview. They have the benefit of having a station for training. It’s a former station that was previously used for response. It’s on DP Road and as an operating fire station it has all the necessary beds, bathrooms and cooking facilities to maintain a group of individuals,” he said. “The Fire Department has designated that as a location for folks who need to be isolated for a variety of reasons so that they do not infect their family at home if they are exposed in the course of their work or their fellow personnel. As a means to segregate, they are identifying that station for their own fire personnel to try to maintain their readiness.”
The County is still required to submit a tentative budget to the state by June 1 and Burgess noted that budget meetings are planned in the latter part of the month.
He mentioned that RediNet, a group the County has worked with for many years, has offered and is currently trying to determine the right site for an intern hot spot so help students who may not have the best internet access. He said this would enable students to sit their car in a certain area and do their homework without congregating with others but still being able to utilize the internet access.
“Because schools are continuing and have been charged with maintaining a level of education for their students online, to support that, we have been trying to determine the right location for it. RediNet has also offered to turn up the bandwidth on certain essential sites and we have reached out to the schools for their identification of such so we can make sure that the students and school personnel have the ability and the availability bandwidth to conduct business,” Burgess said.
Public information is obviously a big concern, he said, adding that over the last couple of weeks the County has issued more press releases than they have over the course of a single year.
“It’s a war of words right now as we wait for other issues to manifest themselves,” he said.
Burgess said the County has to consider what the long-term will be.
“I know we’ve all looked at a number of different models. They all are predicated on certain assumptions. One I reviewed said for New Mexico the peak is predicted to be the first or second day in May. If we consider that right now having been under the stay at home direction for a couple of weeks, it will probably be several more before we actually get to the actual peak in the state,” he said. “We’re in it for the long haul and we’re going to need to depend on one another to continue the practice of social distancing in consideration for exposure and quarantine when necessary in order to continue to battle the peak.“
Burgess said there are some concerns being expressed looking at the model of May 2, that by the middle of May New Mexico might have peaked at the number of total deaths and might see just a handful beyond that date.
“That was all predicated on the idea that the same social isolation or distancing continues through the end of August….One of the biggest fears is the potential for a second wave of the virus should we lessen the various measures and people would discontinue practicing the distancing measures,” he said, adding that the second wave was a factor in the number of deaths during the 1918 pandemic.
Burgess said he plans to continue in this vein, continuing the conversation with the state and dispersing information as it becomes available to the community and that will be the County’s stance going forward.
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