INL director encourages mask usage, shares when site operations might return to “normal”
IDAHO FALLS — The director of Idaho National Laboratory is encouraging people to wear masks and behave responsibly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mark Peters says he’s optimistic about vaccines that appear to be highly effective in the battle against coronavirus but believes it will be several months before life returns to normal.
Peters spoke with EastIdahoNews.com about how COVID-19 has affected INL, when full-time on-site operations may resume again and what’s next for his professional career.
Here is a lightly edited transcript of our interview. You can watch the entire conversation in the video player above.
NATE EATON, EAST IDAHO NEWS: Let’s start by talking about the vaccines that are being announced. You’re a scientist and you work with scientists. What are your thoughts when you hear the news that these vaccines could be available by the end of the year?
MARK PETERS, IDAHO NATIONAL LABORATORY DIRECTOR: I’m very, very excited. Two companies have announced 95% effectiveness during the trials and a third company announced 90% effectiveness in their trials so the more the better. I’m amazed how quickly they were able to do it. It says a lot about the companies and the government and the commitment of resources and talents. I think we should all be excited. The challenge is it’s going to take a while for the vaccines to be available to everyone who wants it. Early on, the first responders, critical workers and those in high risks groups will be the priority – rightly so. It will take a while for all of us to have it but it definitely provides a bright light in the future that we haven’t had in a while.
EATON: INL is the biggest employer in eastern Idaho. How has this affected your employees as they’ve transitioned from working at the site to working remote?
PETERS: In March, we transitioned the majority of our staff to working from home. At that time, we still had about 20% of our workers reporting to facilities. Our current posture is about 40% working at facilities, 60% working from home. We’ve been able to meet our mission effectively but I would say it has not been without challenges. I’m very proud of the workforce – those coming to facilities as well as those working from home. They each have their unique set of challenges and I’m very pleased by everything we have done. We’ve managed to continue to do great science throughout all this but it produces a lot of stress. We’re all stressed about this. Communication has been key and trying to do everything we can to give people the tools they need to do their work wherever they are plus also manage their stress. We’re seeing even more challenges now with the increase of cases in the area and among our staff. The good thing is we’re not getting a lot of transmission at the workplace. We’ve been able to protect people at work pretty effectively.
EATON: I’m assuming that’s with social distancing and masks?
PETERS: Yeah – the whole gamut of mitigations that you would imagine. We’re requiring masks and, as you knowm I’m very vocal about mask usage not only at work but I prefer people use them all the time. Also social distancing and limiting the number of people in a room if they have to meet to 10 or less – consistent with the governor’s order. We’re doing medical screenings and we’re also taking temperatures at all of our entrances.
EATON: You mentioned your passion about masks. A few weeks ago, you sent a letter to all employees saying this needs to be taken seriously and they need to wear a mask, be cautious and be careful.
PETERS: I realize masks have become politicized and I don’t want to get into the politics of masks but the experts say masks are important not only to protect yourself but also to protect others from you. It’s shown in the science that they make sense. From my perspective, everything we can do to protect and take care of each other is, first and foremost, the most important thing. But it also protects the mission of the laboratory. If we have a significant increase of cases and we have to start to ramp back operations to the laboratory, that affects our mission and the ability to do great things for the nation. As we were seeing the uptick in cases, I wanted everyone to remember that it’s each of our personal responsibility to do everything we can to protect each other
EATON: Any idea when you predict operations to be back to “normal” at the INL?
PETERS: Right now I’m assuming it’s not going to be back to “normal” until we can have this under control and the vaccines are more widely available. We’re assuming at this current posture that it will be 40% in facility and 60% at home at least until the spring. I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes longer.
EATON: While I have you, we haven’t spoken since it was announced a few months ago that you will be leaving the INL. What will you be doing?
PETERS: I’m going to Columbus, Ohio. We’ll be moving in mid-January and I’ll be the executive vice president for Laboratory Operations at Battelle. Battelle manages multiple national laboratories, DOE and Department of Homeland Security operations for the government. I will be transitioning into providing oversite over all the labs that Battelle manages. That will include INL so I will maintain a role here and I’ll actually transition to be the chairman of the board for the laboratory so it’s great that I’ll still be involved. I’ll get to be involved in all the labs – labs that do national security work, basic science as well as energy research. I’m very, very excited about it
EATON: You’ve been in eastern Idaho about five years now. Is there anything you’ll miss about living here?
PETERS: Definitely the people – the wonderful, kind people. I’ll miss the lab a lot. It’s been a great, great time here. We will miss the outdoors and the weather. We have a beautiful view of the mountains where we sit here in Idaho Falls. There’s a lot to miss but we’ll be back.