Politicians have been invoking the word “war” when discussing the approach and the mindset that must be in place to address and arrest the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
They have a point.
Tens of thousands of doctors and nurses are risking their lives daily to care for the sick. Many will become infected, even after taking the most rigorous precautions. They are fully aware of this and do this highly stressful, demanding work anyway.
Think about that.
Just pause for 10 seconds to take in that so many are putting others’ welfare before their own, simply to make America safer for you and me; indeed, to give the gift of life.
Others on the frontlines include first responders, grocery workers and delivery professionals.
Far from public view is another class of highly essential workers, many of whom are likely to have to spend weeks away from their families until the COVID-19 pandemic is over: electricity-sector professionals.
In coronavirus-ravaged New York, 37 workers at the state’s transmission grid manager — the New York Independent System Operator — are now living on-site to avoid COVID-19. There are 85 workers living on-site for the New York Power Authority, a large public power utility.
These highly skilled, experienced and hard-to-replace professionals must work collaboratively and in confined settings. Social distancing is not always an option.
Simply put, having one of them get sick and spread the virus would be catastrophic. And having COVID-19 contaminate the workplace area would present a Hobbesian choice: risk workers’ lives or shut down the area, power down the grid and put the public at risk.
There are other monitoring steps that can be taken, such as asking employees how they feel when they come to work and even taking temperatures. But when all is said and done, even these steps are not enough. The only way to reliably monitor and protect key workers is if they are tested for COVID-19, confirmed not to have it, and housed on-site.
European power producers have also sequestered key staff including Italy’s large energy producer Snam and Austria’s Wien Energie, which serves Vienna and the surrounding area. Wien Energie’s website says, “53 employees have volunteered to part ways with their families for the next few weeks in the service of the Viennese. The employees are cut off from the outside world in order to prevent infection. All were medically tested before isolation.”
Today, governors, state emergency management professionals and utility commissions should request immediate briefings on the plans of power generators, utilities and transmission grid operators to protect and sequester workers.
At a minimum, key workers need to be tested for COVID-19 regularly and proactively, and to have abundant, high-quality personal protective equipment. This includes control room operators as well as the lineman and others who must often work near each other in the field.
Fortunately, there is a culture of public service at power-generating and distribution companies. At the core of what they do is a driving mission is to keep the power on, which in modern society is essential for protecting public health and welfare.
Time and time again, these professionals have risen to the challenges of natural disasters, working extremely long hours until the problems are addressed. Their work, though, is typically unsung and in the shadows.
It is time for each state and each community to assess its electric grid infrastructure as the spread of COVID-19 grows in severity, to make sure that the power stays on at this precarious time. And more than ever, we should thank all those who keep the grid running.