As the state and nation struggle with COVID-19 vaccine distribution and inoculation of our citizens, your electric cooperative has been working overtime, with safety measures, to make sure your power stays on. This past year has definitely shined a new light on what we consider “essential.”
Many people shifted their schedules to do more from home, including work and school. The one constant was apparent—without safe, reliable, and affordable electricity, none of this would work. Wisconsin electric cooperatives have taken extraordinary steps to protect employees from exposure to the virus because our skilled workers are responsible for ensuring everyone else can do their important jobs, including healthcare workers and first responders.
We’ve seen the crisis that the coronavirus can cause when utility employees are infected. When a hurricane slammed into Mississippi last year, one electric cooperative was hit with a one-two punch. Massive damage and outages were followed by their entire line crew becoming infected with the virus. Typically, cooperatives are ready and willing to offer mutual aid to other cooperatives facing widespread outages. But COVID-19 made this situation even more difficult due to social distancing rules, travel restrictions, and lack of housing for crews. As a result, the community was forced to wait longer than expected for power to be restored.
The Mississippi situation prompted Wisconsin electric co-ops to take even more precautions. Employees were designated as “essential” in the early days of the pandemic, and as the outbreak stretched into the summer, fall, and winter months, it was critical to ensure we were prepared for the possible ice storm, tornado, or straight-line winds that can cause widespread power outages in our state. Now we are working to ensure these essential workers are prioritized appropriately during vaccine distribution so when power outages do occur, we don’t have to scramble to find outside crews to restore power.
The Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association has been working hard to ensure that state and national health officials understand how critical it is that utility workers be part of Priority Group 1b, the group that is currently eligible. In particular, lineworkers cannot be easily or quickly replaced, and a COVID-19 outbreak among them would lead to serious challenges that could further threaten the economy and quality of life, even without a severe weather event. There are also very few key personnel that run the generation and transmission components for power plants. Their absence would also create an immediate and critical challenge.
Fortunately, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognize how vital these essential workers are to keeping our communities up and running. There are nearly 12,000 utility workers in Wisconsin, and not all of them meet the criteria for priority vaccination. Still, it is comforting to know that those who do are approved to get it beginning this month.
In addition to worker protections, some Wisconsin electric cooperatives have partnered to offer space as testing sites, and potentially, vaccination sites as well. It’s just one more example of our commitment to community, no matter what life throws our way.