GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Winter is coming and so are new COVID-19 challenges for road commissions across West Michigan.

The Michigan Department of Transportation is warning drivers that it could take longer to clear roads of ice and snow if crews are sickened by coronavirus or forced to quarantine.

“Over the years, maintenance workers at the state and local levels have handled everything winter could throw at them but, with the continuing threat of COVID-19, this is going to be an unprecedented winter,” Michigan Transportation Director Paul C. Ajegba stated in a Monday news release.

Both Ottawa and Kent county road commissions agree the top challenge this year is keeping staff healthy.

Spokesperson Alex Doty says the Ottawa County Road Commission is trying to ensure all staff follow health guidelines including wearing masks. The Ottawa County agency is also trying to make its four county garages operate as independently as possible so if an outbreak hits one facility, healthy employees at the other locations can step in to help.

A photo of a frost sensor provided by the Ottawa County Road Commission. (2019)

The Kent County Road Commission says its working on a fallback plan that would include sharing employees from neighboring road agencies if COVID-19 seriously impacts one location. Kent County’s coronavirus safety guidelines also include wearing facemasks, enhanced sanitization of equipment and keeping employees separated as much as possible.

One tool helping Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon counties streamline the road clearing process: frost sensors. The Kent County Road Commission says with pavement temperatures varying as much as 5 degrees on the same road, the sensors can help pinpoint slippery spots.

Measuring about the size of a football, each pole-mounted sensor monitors air and road temperatures, dew point and humidity. The data is sent back wirelessly every 20 minutes to software that organizes it and alerts road agencies who can target roads that need to be treated immediately, saving time and money.

Kent and Ottawa counties began deploying the sensors last year. Kent County is home to 30 of the devices and Ottawa County has 24 sensors, several of which can now send back photos showing pavement conditions.