BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos County Manager Harry Burgess again presented a situational update on the COVID-19 emergency in the County during Tuesday evening’s telephonic meeting of the County Council.
Burgess noted that there have been two positive tests within the County which was a significant change from his Mar. 31 update. He said not necessarily influenced by that fact, he had late last week issued an extended directive to County staff regarding the County’s posture as it responds to the emergency.
Burgess said when the original directive to send employees home to telework or for emergency leave was issued it was done consistent with the then current directive regarding schools.
“They had been initially closed until April 6 and our directive mirrored that. However, obviously things have changed nationally. The President advised folks to stay at home for the rest of the month. We needed to address our own situation given that limited directive and I did issue that extension late last week,” he said. “Since that time, the governor has also extended a similar order until the end of this month.”
Burgess said County staff are also having conversations about what the extension means for subsequent considerations as well because the County may be in a crisis situation.
“Many of those considerations revolve around event planning that the County has coming up. The first order would be our budget hearings which we anticipate still going on on the selected dates however we’re anticipating a similar format as what we’re doing this evening for such a series of meetings,” he said.
Burgess noted that the County has a couple of large events to consider, from the initiation of the shuttle service for Bandelier National Monument in coordination with the National Park Service to the start-up of the Summer Concert Series, Sciencefest and the July Fourth Celebration. He said many groups and external participants have to make some decisions regarding planning.
“We’re beginning some conversations about looking at some alternate methods of presenting those various events. We don’t have any specifics to report at this time however, the conversation revolves around some sort of virtual or online presentation of similar materials – it may be conducive to a concert to do so if our contracted entity can perform it in that way,” Burgess said, “But also, looking at Sciencefest, many of those presentations are accompanied by abstracts and even some PowerPoint type presentations that we could present in some kind of online fashion as people are looking for things to do as they are sequestered in their own homes. So we’re looking at some alternate means to provide some of the content but that has not been fully worked out yet and in some cases it may not be feasible but at least staff are looking into those options at this time.”
Burgess said with respect to the governor’s extended order, it’s not just about sheltering at home and continuing social distancing but other changes such as hotels and RV parks being directed to maintain no more than 25 percent occupancy instead of the 50 percent mandated in the prior directive. He noted that large stores such as grocery stores and big box stores have been directed to limit their occupancy at any given time to 20 percent of what they are otherwise committed to have and that both liquor stores and auto dealers are now considered to be non-essential businesses and ordered to be closed.
“Those are changes to the directions that were previously provided and I know that people are looking to try to address those specific actions. One of those areas involves the County with respect to our RV parks and campgrounds. Our staff are looking at how we can designate sites for occupancy and leave others vacant so that we do not violate this directive,” he said.
Burgess noted that included in the governor’s order was specific guidance and recommendation that the public and employees begin wearing some sort of face covering when they’re out of their own homes.
“The state followed CDC guideline and in their webpage they actually have some links to CDC pages as well, including one that describes how to make your own face covering if you don’t have such already, largely because the availability of masks is very limited and still being directed towards medical uses,” he said. “ In fact, we’ve been looking at obtaining additional masks particularly for our EMS providers – N95 or similar types of masks – and what we’re experiencing is once the order is placed we get some sort of response saying they’re no longer available.”
Burgess said the County has some orders for face covering that are being processed but has long wait times for when they might be received. He said at present County departments are utilizing the protective measures have them available however supplies are beginning to run low and the County is looking to find alternative sources of these masks.
“For the face covering guidance the state is not recommending that the public go out and obtain medical devices but instead they’ve got a number of different suggestions ranging from masks that people might otherwise use for construction purposes to bandanas to homemade items as well that provide a certain level of protection,” he said.
There is a three-week wait time for just general face coverings that are no medically certified, he said, and those often come with a liability waiver for the entity to sign before receipt because they aren’t providing any certification of level of protection.
“The state says the face covering is no substitute for the same social distancing but should be an additional measure for protection that the individual is employing. We are looking to obtain enough masks to have them for our personnel as they become necessary and will be providing some guidance to our employees as to when and how to utilize them,” Burgess said.
Burgess reported that the County assisted in the conducting of a test site for COVID-19 virus at Overlook Park April 2 where some 136 people came through the site. He said another 18 persons were tested at the Beehive Homes of White Rock because that was close to the test site. He noted that the results would be heard later this week.
Burgess said he has been looking at a number of questions being raised by County employees such as what happens if an employee in their division tests positive or a member of an employee’s family tests positive or shows symptoms of COVID-19 as well as what types of things the County can do – not only about sequestering that individual or sending them home, but about the spaces that they were working in.
“We’re developing some guidance right now. We’ve had on for several weeks a contractor to do cleaning in various areas as we’ve had individuals who have reported symptoms and gone home to isolate. We have had them sanitize those areas and used them at Overlook Park last week to decontaminate the various areas that were used for the test site including the outdoor fixtures etc. Important thing is that we need some sort of guidance for all our various departments to know what the next steps are going to be,” Burgess said. “We could all individually come up with and reasonably determine what the appropriate response would be but that would be a different response from department to department so we’re trying to make them a uniform and effective mechanism for our employees to follow.”
Burgess noted that County Emergency Manager Beverley Simpson has also been working on communication pieces along with other staff members including a flyer called Neighbors Helping Neighbors that provides a number of different suggestions for a variety of issues related to the COVID-19 virus and includes various mechanisms for people that might need additional help.
He noted that Simpson worked with the Los Alamos Retired Seniors Organization (LARSO) and they’ve actually put together packets with flyer and red and green placards in an opportunity of collaboration to assist one another and be prepared for any eventual outbreak here in town. Residents are encouraged to put a red placard in their window if they need some kinds of assistance. He also noted that a group called All Together Los Alamos has come together that is offering some services to assist residents as they need them.
“We’re seeing a number of these types of groups coming together on line which is great. Lately there’s been an effort to sew masks so that people who don’t have access to some of the manufactured items could still have the face coverings that are being deemed necessary in the state,” Burgess said.
Burgess said Los Alamos National Laboratory has had news releases indicating that it has tried to reduce the workforce commuting to and coming into the Laboratory by enhancing their telecommunications staff.
“There’s more than just the Laboratory, there’s also the environmental management side of things, and it appears that they have largely stood down from their efforts to where they have reduced their employees coming into the office from 700 to about 20 employees on a daily basis,” he said. “So there have been some very active reductions in persons that are going to work in this community and it’s been reflected in the traffic that we see on the streets and the people out and about. The community has done a great job to adhere to the standards.”
Burgess noted that there are still some questions out there about the parks and their potential for congregate activities. He noted that PEEC sent out some guidelines and encouragement for people to make the best of the outdoors while maintaining social distancing so that Los Alamos County may not find itself in a situation like some other communities that have already had to close their parks. He noted that County employees have been taking measures to disinfect playground equipment at least on a weekly basis.
Burgess mentioned a daily situational report being prepared by Simpson which summarizes multiple daily briefings she has with the Laboratory, Los Alamos Medical Center and local entities as well as the surrounding communities.
Councilors asked questions on Burgess’s presentation. Councilor Antonio Maggiore asked how many tests for COVID-19 had actually been run for Los Alamos County. Burgess said the County is starting to get that number but that there is not a single reporting.
Maggiore said he just thinks that when people look out at the numbers and see that the County only has two positive cases, it would also be helpful to put out also that really only 48 tests had been actually run and processed so that people don’t get a false sense of security.
“I want the community not to have a false sense of security. The message of the delay in getting those results processed is not filtering out,” Maggiore said.
Councilor David Izraelevitz said he also would like to reiterate that a small number of positive tests does not really indicate much about the prevalence of COVID-19 in the community.
“As we have read in the newspapers there is a fair number of asymptomatic carriers who may be in our communities so the prudent assumption is that anyone that we come into contact with that is not in our family and so forth that we have usual regular contact that we should assume they they’re possible carriers or that we ourselves may be carriers unknowingly and to protect others as well as ourselves we should maintain that social distancing regardless of any testing statistics,” he said.
Council Chair Sara Scott said reiterated how critical everyone in the community’s actions are.
“We have to stay home, wash our hands often, practice social distancing and wear face covering when we must be out in public. I know we can do this for all of us together and we will make a difference but we’ve really got to keep after it,” she said.
Scott advised anyone with questions about services or needing help call (505) 662-8333.
“They have a wealth of information on service organizations, specifics regarding where you again can get help, and other resources available to help us all be informed about what it going on as things change on a day-to-day basis,” she said.