Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor Vol. 26 No. 02
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January 14, 2022

Big Spike in Cases Across NNSA Enterprise During Omicron Surge; HQ Office Returns Pushed Back at DOE

By ExchangeMonitor

With the omicron variant of COVID-19 driving a national spike in cases, the National Nuclear Security Administration reported a record number of active infections across the nuclear security enterprise on Friday.

There were 1,265 active cases across the enterprise as of Friday, a spokesperson at National Nuclear Security Security (NNSA) headquarters wrote in an email. That’s not only a record for active weekly cases, it’s the single largest week-to-week increase in the nearly two years of record keeping for active infections at the agency’s national network of labs, plants and sites.

Still, despite confirming 735 more active cases this week than last, and 390 more active cases than this week last year, when vaccines were not yet widely available even to deemed-essential national-defense employees at the NNSA sites, the agency has not seen a massive uptick in fatal cases so far during the current wave.

Last week, the NNSA reported a couple of new fatalities, bringing the total to 33 since the pandemic was confirmed to have reached the U.S. in early 2020.

Amid the omicron surge, reportedly more contagious but less lethal, especially to the vaccinated, the Department of Energy has delayed a planned return-to-work for some headquarters personnel in the Washington area. 

With a spike in COVID-19 cases, top management at the Department of Energy plans to go “the extra mile” by stretching out its phased return to onsite work for employees and contractors by an additional month, according to a Thursday email.

“We are delaying our increased return to the workplace schedule by one month,” Tarak Shah, chief of staff to Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, said in a “Team DOE” email Thursday viewed by the Exchange Monitor.

A DOE spokesperson also confirmed, in a Friday email, the return onsite schedule is being pushed back by a month.

While most ‘site critical” staff are already on site ahead of the original Jan. 18 target, Shah said the return for many “site flexible” employees will be Feb. 28 and, finally, most “site optional” site are expected to come back to pre-pandemic work stations by March 14. In both cases that is a month later than Shah outlined in an earlier staff memo in December.

Back then, Shah told DOE employees of plans to phase out “maximum telework” and move to something more akin to a pre-pandemic operating stance by mid-February.

Meanwhile, out across the NNSA enterprise, plenty of sites are still allowing widespread telework for those who can manage it.

At the Nevada National Security Site, there was roughly a 60/40 ratio of on-site versus teleworking personnel, a spokesperson said.

The Sandia National Laboratories and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory each had about half of their workforces doing their jobs remotely this week. At Livermore, a spokesperson said, employees and their supervisors are free to negotiate tailored telework arrangements, so long as the employee’s duties allow it.

The NNSA labs all claim employee vaccination rates in the 90th percentile, though they, like most NNSA sites, have suspended requirements that employees either get a COVID shot or find a new job. Just after New Year’s, the Sandia National Laboratories paused enforcement of its vaccine mandate, leaving only the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Nevada National Security Site with active mandates.

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