Winter is coming, and when it arrives, there will be new challenges for dealing with COVID-19 — and some Missouri state agencies will have to adapt beyond the ways they usually do for cold weather.
"We need to stop COVID-19 at the doors of MoDOT," Missouri Department of Transportation Director Patrick McKenna said at the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission's Sept. 2 meeting.
McKenna said, "If we lose a maintenance shed in winter — we have well over 80 counties that are serviced by a single MoDOT facility. We could literally be talking about not being able to provide service to an entire county during a winter storm. That would shut the economy down and the safety of the public and the service that we provide is too vital for that to happen."
McKenna told the News Tribune last week MoDOT has a "razor thin" operating margin after years of down-sizing, being $150 million behind on the schedule for replacing equipment and having heavy turnover.
Much of the reason for the turnover — which results in a shortage of heavy equipment operators — is due to workers' base pay not being competitive, when people with commercial driver's licenses are much sought after, he said.
"We have pretty good coverage most of the time," McKenna said, and if the pandemic were to put a maintenance shed offline and a winter storm then moved through that region of the state, the department could probably shift some resources.
However, if the pandemic causes challenges during a statewide or extended-duration winter storm event, that's when there could be serious problems, he said.
MoDOT Emergency Management Coordinator Michael White and state Maintenance Director Natalie Roark presented at the Sept. 2 commission meeting on the department's precautions for the pandemic.
"Right now, we're roughly short 400 full-time maintenance and emergency equipment operators going into the winter, and we're working diligently to get those filled," Roark said.
She said applications were going well, though interviewing will be done only over the phone, some training will be virtual, and any in-person skills training will be done with limited group sizes.
As of Aug. 23, White shared, a total of 35 MoDOT employees had tested positive for COVID-19.
As of Sept. 11, a total of 48 MoDOT employees had tested positive, according to later information from the Office of Administration.
As of Friday, MoDOT spokeswoman Linda Wilson Horn said, a total of 105 employees had tested positive.
MoDOT shares information with its employees including which district the employees who test positive work in — or if they work at the department's central office — when they were last in a MoDOT facility, when they became symptomatic, when they were tested, when results were learned and for how long affected facilities will be closed. The employees themselves who test positive remain unnamed.
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In addition to using remote work where possible, policy changes have included only having one person per vehicle for trips that last longer than 10 minutes.
"By reallocating vehicles, we have allowed our maintenance staff to implement this policy," White said.
MoDOT spokesman Matt Hiebert shared a more comprehensive flowchart for social distancing as it relates to work activities.
For any winter event through at least the rest of 2020, there's only to be one person per vehicle, and face coverings are to be used if a worker is within 6 feet of a coworker.
Those policies are standard across all of MoDOT's top-priority operations tasks that will be performed with social distancing, from responding to downed trees over a roadway and lanes closed by a crash to missing or obstructed signs and emergency pavement repairs.
Certain operations might require more specific adaptations, such as using mechanical lifting devices instead of people or different kinds of equipment than usual, pulling debris off a roadway but leaving it on the side, or investigating drainage issues but repairing them later.
Roark said lower-priority work that can't be performed with 6 feet of social distancing, such as installing adopted highway signs, has been delayed.
Applications for adopted highway signs are still being accepted and processed, Roark said, "however, the sign installations are being delayed until after COVID."
MoDOT is not alone in having to adapt when it comes to operations on the road.
Missouri Highway Patrol spokesman Capt. John Hotz said the patrol "has been working to ensure our employees have the appropriate personal protective equipment on hand as well as an adequate supply of hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and other cleaning solutions.
"The safety and well-being of our employees as well as the public are our top priority. We continue to follow the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services during our response to COVID-19," Hotz said.
When it comes to the garage that services the Highway Patrol's vehicles, Hotz said: "We require mask usage and social distancing by our employees at the GHQ garage. In addition, prior to servicing a trooper's vehicle, the auto technicians will frequently wipe down the steering wheel, gear shift and door handles with disinfectant wipes in order to avoid potential cross-contamination."
Off the roads, the Missouri Department of Corrections said winter should not affect offenders' recreation time.
DOC spokeswoman Karen Pojmann said, "Throughout the pandemic, offenders have continued to have indoor and outdoor recreation time. Because our viral containment plan entails limiting group sizes and avoiding contact among residents of different housing units, the amount of outdoor recreation time has been slightly reduced (shorter periods with smaller groups rather than large periods with large groups), but it does continue, and we expect it to continue during the winter as well."
Missouri Department of Conservation spokesman Joe Jerek said of that department, "MDC will continue to practice COVID-19-related health measures we currently have in place through the winter. Those measures ensure the health and safety of staff, volunteers and the public and include: requiring masks of everyone who enters MDC facilities, staff teleworking as possible, social distancing, hand washing, limiting staff direct contact with one another, requiring staff to be masked in vehicles when they can't maintain 6 feet distance, and staff testing starting later this year."
Jerek clarified on testing: "Staff who are symptomatic are tested by their care providers and not coming to work. We will be starting 'sentinel surveillance' of staff later this year, as will other agencies. It will involve regular testing of staff on an ongoing basis."