Mission forward

By Meagan Brace

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Sandia prepares for gradual return to normal operations

COVID-19 warning sign outside gate
STOP SIGN — Signs around Sandia’s campus remind employees to take preventive measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. (Photo by Lonnie Anderson)

Sandia is using a phased approach to return to normal operations over the coming months, while continuing maximum telework as much as possible.

Labs Director working at desk wearing face masks
SETTING THE STANDARD — Labs Director James S. Peery wears a face mask while working on-site to protect himself and others in the area. (Photo by Lonnie Anderson)

The initial phase of the plan, announced by Labs Director James S. Peery on May 21, will begin with updated guidance and training to ensure employees on-site remain safe, and that employees who return to the site after teleworking since mid-March have a common understanding of the guidelines and protective measures.

Any employee who can continue to work from home will do so, and no employee will return to on-site work without manager authorization.

Each of the three phases requires a minimum of 14 days of negative COVID-19 growth in surrounding communities and approval from NNSA before the Labs will move to the next phase.

As more people return, Sandia has implemented several layers of protection to ensure safe, continuous work activities and facility operations.

Preventing asymptomatic spread

officer at gate holding badge reader on extension pole

HANDS OFF — Security Police Officer Robert De La O uses a contactless badge reader to check badges at a Sandia gate. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

“Changes to the way Sandians work that have been in effect since the pandemic are measures that aim to improve social distancing and keep exposure to a minimum,” said Johnathon Huff, director of Environment, Safety and Health. “Employees are encouraged to maintain six feet of distance from others where possible, just as in other places of business.”

Many workspaces have been rearranged to maximize distance between workers wherever possible though consultations with members of Sandia’s social distance committee, an interdisciplinary team of subject matter experts from Employee Health Services, ES&H, and Global Chemical and Biological Security. Managers also have staggered shift times and work locations to minimize the number of workers in a facility at any given time.

Beginning April 22 at Sandia/California and May 16 at Sandia/New Mexico, face coverings are mandatory for employees, subcontractors and visitors in common areas where 6 feet of distance from others cannot be maintained.

“People are wearing face coverings in common areas and when others are present or likely to be, such as in hallways, bathrooms, stairways, breakrooms, elevators and conference rooms,” Johnathon said.

Screening for COVID-19 risk factors

employee outside medical clinic in PPE talking on walkie talkie
WELL EQUIPPED — Sandian medical team member Reece Ponicki wears personal protective equipment during site operations. (Photo by Lonnie Anderson)

As more workforce members resume on-site work, Sandia’s new Health Check system for employees will help reduce the risk of COVID-19 in the workplace.

The Health Check system, which screens individuals for symptom- and behavior-based risk factors of COVID-19, is based on recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and requirements outlined in the state of New Mexico’s COVID-safe practices for employers. Employees and contractors are encouraged to complete a daily health check via a desktop or mobile app or in person at designated locations on-site before accessing any Sandia facility.

“The health check can be considered a habit-forming behavioral tool to help us all deliberately stop each day to assess how we are feeling, tune in and identify any changes in our health or new symptoms of COVID-19 — something we haven’t needed or was necessarily our thought process habit prior to the pandemic,” said Renee Holland, director of Employee Health Services.

“Our workforce has always been dedicated to our mission and committed to above-and-beyond performance to get the job done, pushing out of mind any physical symptoms. Now more than ever, though, we need to be especially mindful of our health for our own safety and the safety of our co-workers.”

The app allows individuals to conveniently enter their temperature and answer a series of questions related to symptoms, travel history and contact with a known COVID-19 case. Then, based on their responses, they either will be allowed to access Sandia facilities or asked to stay at home for the day. Those who are told to stay home may be instructed to contact a healthcare provider or Sandia Medical Clinic for further evaluation. In some cases, Sandia Medical may contact employees to get more information about specific symptoms or exposure to better determine risk level.

Those who lack access to the app can get in-person screenings with a contactless temperature check and verbal questionnaire at key technical area access gates, badge offices and remote sites.

Keeping facilities clean

custodian sprays disinfectant
CLEAN ROOM — Sandia custodian Veronica Duran and her co-workers are cleaning and disinfecting high-touch areas around the Labs up to six times per day. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Custodial Services, staffed with 89 custodians, has changed its processes over the past two months and is now cleaning and disinfecting areas that most people touch frequently — doorknobs, counter surfaces, elevator controls, etc. — up to six times a day. They also are filling and distributing bottles of hand sanitizer on-site.

“To further help prevent the spread, facilities organizations have increased fresh air circulation and reduced recirculated air across most buildings, depending on weather and equipment,” said Anthony Chavez, senior manager of Facilities.

“For instance, we have routinely increased air circulation in office buildings. However, we work closely with those working in laboratory spaces to avoid recirculating air with potentially hazardous substances.”

Should an employee or contractor with a confirmed case of COVID-19 report that they had spent time in a Sandia building, the Labs would follow its disinfection plan. Sandia’s ES&H team works with a subcontractor, Advanced Environmental Solutions, to disinfect affected buildings, following a scoping visit by diverse subject matter experts from across the Labs, including Sandia Medical, ES&H, the building or space owner and Labs leadership.

Providing access to COVID-19 testing

nurse practitioner administers COVID-19 test to employee
WELL CHECK — Sandia nurse practitioner Guy Goodness performs a COVID-19 test on an employee at the Labs’ drive-through testing site. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Sandia stood up the first testing site at a national lab on April 8 and began providing appointment-only drive-up screening for Sandia employees and subcontractors who were referred by Sandia Medical. Referrals were determined using a risk-based screening approach, informed by the CDC and New Mexico Department of Health guidelines.

On May 18, the Labs expanded testing criteria to include any employee, subcontractor or local NNSA employee who wanted to be tested, consistent with guidance from New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. By the end of May, more than 900 had been tested, Renee said.

“Initial testing prioritized healthcare workers and symptomatic personnel, followed by return-to-duty evaluations for mission essential personnel in quarantine, either because of travel or close contact with a COVID-19 case, then additional mission essential personnel. We now offer COVID-19 testing (by appointment) to any member of our workforce who volunteers or requests it,” said Renee.

Sandia is also conducting a review of research on antibody testing and will expand the testing program once research supports its efficacy and role in clinical decision making.