While researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) have been an integral part of worldwide efforts to defeat COVID-19, the facility has also been dealing with efforts to protect its employees from the pandemic.
Like many California businesses, LLNL, the largest employer in the Tri-Valley, has been operating with a reduced on-site workforce since the state issued a shelter-in-place order on March 19, with nearly 90% of its 7,000 employees working from home either full or part-time.
A small number of employees are still working at the laboratory on “mission critical” operations, primarily involving national security, while another 9% are on authorized leave, according to Lynda Seaver, director of public affairs. She said no employees were furloughed or laid off.
Much the same is true at the Sandia National Laboratories site in Livermore, which employs about 1,400. In a statement, Sandia, whose executive offices and primary laboratory complex are located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said about 77% of its nearly 10,000 employees are working from home.
In a podcast interview last week, Jim Brase, LLNL deputy associate director for data science, told “This Week in HPC” that the lab has been on minimal, safe operations for several weeks, where the first priority is to maintain the safety of the lab and the people who work there.
“We’re continuing to run our computer systems; we’re continuing to have some minimal level of lab operations, particularly in areas that are related to the COVID-19 response,” Brase said. “And there are a few specific national security priority projects that are continuing to operate at a fairly low rate, but getting the important work that they’re doing done at a reasonable level.”
Brase said that even though he’s in the computing department and can work remotely, it’s come with some adjustment.
“Just getting used to working completely through virtual meetings and so on has been a little bit of a learning experience,” he said. “We’re looking forward to getting back to whatever the new normal will look like sometime in the next few weeks and months.”
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, LLNL has been focused on using artificial intelligence and its supercomputers to identify potential new antibodies to combat the disease. The laboratory recently announced that it had identified about 20 promising antibodies from a nearly infinite number of potential candidates. Those results have been shared with universities, drug companies and other research laboratories for further development.
Although LLNL’s activities are considered “essential” by the federal government because of its national security work, Seaver said the laboratory voluntarily chose to comply with the state’s shelter-in-place order. The laboratory has also been bringing more employees back on site in the past few weeks.
“We are still in reduced operations, but we are ramping up,” Seaver said. “We are bringing back pockets of employees — a couple dozen each week to restart operations and make sure everything is running when the others return. We didn’t just shut down immediately, and we won’t have all 7,000 show up at once when this is over.”
Even when the lab returns to full staffing, Seaver noted they will need to be mindful of social distancing.
“We also want to make sure we have personal protective equipment, face masks and gloves, for all our employees on site,” Seaver said.
Small groups of employees have also started returning to Sandia Livermore Laboratories, primarily to continue classified national security work that is not allowed to be done via telecommuting. Like LLNL, Sandia is under the purview of the U.S. Department of Energy.
“This will be conducted in a phased approach to ensure that we maintain safe operations through the rigorous application of social distancing and other Centers of Disease Control and Prevention guidance,” the Sandia statement wrote.
While state and local governments in California and New Mexico have issued stay-at-home orders to residents and businesses intended to limit the spread of COVID-19, Sandia said its national security work at both the Albuquerque and Livermore laboratories — like that at LLNL — falls under an exemption for essential activities as defined by the Department of Homeland Security.
Sandia did have to temporarily shut down some lab buildings at its Albuquerque complex after employees tested positive for COVID-19. The latest closure, according to the Sandia website, was April 13. The facility was reopened two days later, after being cleaned and disinfected. Sandia said two employees in New Mexico and three in California have tested positive for COVID-19, but did not provide any additional information on their condition.
LLNL said four employees have tested positive for COVID-19, all of whom are recovering while working from home.