BY MAIRE O’NEILL
Los Alamos National Laboratory has confirmed 165 confirmed cases of COVID-10 as of Friday. A LANL spokesman said 94 of those employees have fully recovered. On-site testing continues with a cumulative total of 8,616 tests to date. Some 55 percent of employees continue to telework, the spokesman said.
Sources tell the Los Alamos Reporter that approximately 870 LANL employees are self-isolating at home and that operations are beginning to be affected, however, LANL officials did not comment on these allegations. Asked for a comment on the current state of the Lab with regard to COVID-19, the Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration Field Office deferred to Triad National Security for comment.
Lab Director Thom Mason, speaking to the Los Alamos School Board Tuesday, noted that it is impossible to really talk about anything without first addressing the dramatic and unfortunate impacts associated with COVID-19. He said just as is the case with education, there is really no aspect of the Lab’s work that has not been impacted in a fairly substantial way.
“We are trying to learn from this and adapt how we get our work done. Probably the most important adaptation is about 65 percent of ouor employees are teleworking and of course that’s good both from the point of view of their reduced potential for exposure to the virus, being in the safety and comfort of their homes, and also the fact that it reduces the number of people on site so that those employees whose jobs require them to be on site don’t have to deal with the normal density of people and interactions that goes with that,” Mason said. “Despite having that large component teleworking, we are getting a lot of our work done. In fact, I would say if you asked me last February if we could accomplish as much as we have in telework mode I would not have believed it.”
He noted that there are some things that cannot be done remotely such as hands-on work, experimental work, utilities work and construction work.
“And of course as a national security lab, we do a fair amount of classified stuff and we don’t like people taking that home for sure. For the work that has to happen on-site we’ve tried to be flexible in terms of how we schedule things – providing for staggered shift to spread people out in time,” he said.
Mason said another thing the Lab has found to be extremely helpful is the development of an in-house ability to test employees on-site.
“It turns out that the gold standard test for COVID-19 is something called PCR -Polymerase Chain Reaction – and that requires rather sophisticated and expensive equipment but it turns out it’s sophisticated and expensive equipment that is the toolkit for modern biology so we already it and had the skilled technicians that knew how to use it,” he said. “That allowed us, with the accreditation from the state, the ability to test employees.”
Mason said LANL is particularly focused on employees who are in higher contact positions such as the protective force and frontline employees as well as those who have to work in close quarters.
As of Friday evening, there were no announcements from LANL about any changes in work status following the governor’s announcement of shelter in place, however, as COVID-19 numbers have been rising, employees who are able to telework have been encouraged to do so. Although the school district will be in remote learning mode from Monday until Jan. 19, 2021, there are no indications of changes at this time for Lab employees.