Sep. 2—The top contractor at the Savannah River Site will soon require its thousands-strong workforce be vaccinated against COVID-19, a memo reviewed by the Aiken Standard shows.
All regular employees, subcontractors, teleworkers and new hires, among others, will need to get the jabs, Savannah River Nuclear Solutions President and CEO Stuart MacVean wrote in a dispatch to workers. The Pfizer vaccine, greenlighted by the Food and Drug Administration, is available on-site.
"OSHA has declared COVID-19 a workplace hazard, and we have been looking at our mitigation control practices to use all the options we have to ensure the safety of our team," MacVean said. "The FDA approval for the Pfizer vaccine provides us with the most effective tool to help ensure a safe work environment and better protect us from serious illness due to the virus."
A timeline — or a vaccination deadline — has not yet been set. MacVean promised "more information will be forthcoming."
The decision by Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, the management-and-operations contractor at the Savannah River Site, comes as South Carolina again struggles to stem the spread of the coronavirus, namely the delta variant, which was first identified in India and now dominates cases across the U.S.
More than 130 Savannah River Site workers were quarantined with COVID-19 as of Aug. 27. MacVean in his memo warned they "are seeing the highest case rate on-site since the pandemic started and the severity of the illness is particularly difficult for those people that are not vaccinated."
The latest crush of coronavirus has been particularly devastating to those unvaccinated; of the 43 people being treated for COVID-19 at Aiken Regional Medical Centers, 41 are not immunized. Eight are in the ICU. The state health department on Aug. 31 said "the overwhelming number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the first two weeks of June 2021 were among residents who were not fully vaccinated." Similar results were found looking at data from mid-July to mid-August.
"Eleven of our team members here at the site have been hospitalized in the last two months and four of them have passed because of this terrible disease," MacVean wrote in his memo. "The average age of the deceased employees was 48 and we understand that they were unvaccinated."
Exemptions to the SRNS vaccine mandate will be considered on a case-by-case basis.
A healthy and reliable workforce at Savannah River Nuclear Solutions is crucial, as the team handles tritium operations at the site and works on the National Nuclear Security Administration's plutonium pit production endeavor. Both are tied to nuclear weapons and the upkeep of the U.S. arsenal, more broadly. It's work MacVean described as "critically important" to the country.
The first case of COVID-19 at the Savannah River Site was logged in late March 2020. In a memo that month, MacVean described the pandemic as "unprecedented." And that was just the beginning.
"Honestly," he wrote at the time, "there is really no better word to describe what our country is going through right now."