With phases of relaxing COVID-19 restrictions progressing in Maryland, it’s a time when companies of all sizes are beginning to think about how they will get back to work.
The state is in Phase 2 of reopening, while Baltimore is in Phase 1. But with the coronavirus still circulating without a vaccine or treatment available, extra steps will be necessary to keep preventing the spread of the disease at the center of a pandemic.
In hundreds of conversations with executives at big firms, Rob Mesirow, the D.C.-based partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC) Connected Solutions/IoT practice, has found a common topic: “the overwhelming need for these contingencies that will provide comfort to workforces to return to the work environment,” he said. “It could not be more top of mind.”
It’s a problem set crying out for new tools that apply data-centered approaches and can scale quickly across big workforces. In other words, it sounds like an area where tech might play a role.
In particular, ensuring employees are healthy when they come to work and being able to isolate the virus to prevent it from reaching across a workforce are two concerns on the minds of employers. Tech teams are responding to that need with new products, and already seeing lots of interest.
Here’s a look at a few new software-based approaches we’ve seen recently:
Screening and monitoring
Employers looking to bring folks back to a workplace or job site want to ensure employees are healthy before they do so. One place to start is with how they’re feeling before they head in to start a shift, and being able to direct folks to the right place if they’re in need of care.
Clarksville-based PinpointHealth.us is addressing that with its web app called Wellness Check. The app sends a text message to a company’s employees, where they tap a link and answer a few questions, such as whether they’ve had flu-like symptoms or shortness of breath and if they’ve been in contact with anyone else with symptoms. It adjusts questions based on how folks answer, and uses algorithms to provide recommendations on what to do next. This can clear them to return to work, or direct them to stay home and self-quarantine. They could also be automatically scheduled for a visit.
With the platform, employers get access to a dashboard that allows for monitoring of responses, so they can use the data to make decisions about allocating workforce.
The company is serving clients in the healthcare, construction, government, senior care and restaurant industries.
“I know that technology and accessibility are important to our clients at the best of times, and in the midst of the pandemic, having instant access to vital information in real time will help them make decisions that will ultimately save many lives,” said Chris Nickerson, Pinpoint Health’s director of customer success. He added that customers like that it is a web app that does not require an additional download.
The technology was adapted from a platform launched in 2016 to account for students and teachers during an active shooter or threat at schools. Partnering with Elkridge-based Centennial Medical Group, Pinpoint launched the healthcare platform earlier this year, which was already HIPAA-compliant. To address COVID-19, they built in line with CDC guidelines, which advises having a plan to monitor employees. Going forward, Nickerson said the app’s pathways can also be adjusted to what local restrictions are in place at a given time.
Check-ins and badges
At the City of Baltimore, employees will have access to technology for self-screening before reporting in to work.
On Friday, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said the city is partnering with Mount Vernon-based emocha Health to bring an app that will allow employees across 30 agencies to report their temperature and other symptoms.
“It will provide employees with an innovative way to self-screen and expedite their entry process into work sites. This new partnership will play a vital role in Baltimore City’s restoration of services,” Young said at a news conference on Friday.
— Technical.ly Baltimore (@TechnicallyBMR) June 5, 2020
Applying the Johns Hopkins spinout’s asynchronous mobile video technology, it allows employees to track their temperature and symptoms. Employees first indicate if they are experiencing COVID-19-related symptoms from a checklist, answer questions about potential community exposure, and input a temperature reading. If they do report symptoms, employees then record a short check-in.
But in this case, emocha introduced a digital, color-coded badge that indicates whether they can return to work based on the data entered. Employees will have to display the badges when they enter.
The badges are three colors:
- Green means a “non-concerning check-in” and can return.
- Yellow means an employee is ineligible to return to work based on the data they entered.
- Grey indicates the employee forgot to check in.
“As we’ve updated our product for return-to-work and return-to-learn use, we’ve rapidly responded to changing needs from our users. This digital badge not only reduces the exposure and risk inherent in workplace temperature and symptom screening programs, but also expedites reentry into the workplace,” said emocha Health CEO Sebastian Seigeur.
To accommodate all potential users, emocha is also developing an on-site kiosk and web portal for City employees and visitors who do not have smartphones.
It shows city government tapping a startup working in one of the local tech community’s areas of strength — digital health — to address a challenge presented by the pandemic. emocha has a long-running partnership with the Baltimore City Health Department, and this broadens its work across agencies.
Along with visibility into employees’ current health status, stopping a contagious virus also requires tools to identify the people who infected individuals came in contact with, and determine where it might’ve spread.
We’ve all become acquainted with this term known as contact tracing in the last couple of months, as it has been identified as a crucial public health tool. For use inside businesses, professional services company PwC developed a tool that applies technology to the highly manual and hours-long process of calling people, interviewing them, getting a list of their contacts, then calling more people.
The company, which has an office in downtown Baltimore, was able to take an indoor geolocation platform and “lift and shift” the technology to apply to contact tracing, said Mesirow. Via an app, it allows employers to identify who from a workplace might’ve come into contact with someone infected. When someone self-reports having COVID-19, the system provides a list to employers of people who potentially came into proximity with the infected person within 30 seconds, with each sorted into a proximity ranking.
It can also help to prevent closing down an entire office. If the tracing tool found a person was in a specific area, then those sections of an office could be isolated for cleaning.
While tech tools can prove powerful in aiding public health, the data available also makes privacy a concern. Mesirow emphasized that it was a “privacy-first design.” When he first approached the head of HR about the technology, “the first call wasn’t to the dev team. The first call was to our head of privacy,” he said.
Rather than tracking location, the tool is seeking to understand signal patterns, and develop proximity scores. Only specific people have access to the dashboard, and the data is destroyed once a search is finished. And, he said, it is only observing signals inside a workplace.
“This is just a straight list. It’s not about location, it’s about proximity, and at the end of the day,” he said, “you’re getting it in a fraction of time so that you’re able to flatten the curve and protect well-being.”
PwC is using the tool itself as a required part of its own return-to-work efforts, and it is also marketing it to other companies with lots of interest so far. Terri McClements, PwC managing partner for the mid-Atlantic, said the tool can help provide “peace of mind” to employees that, “if something should happen within the walls of our office space, we will take action on it. We can identify. We can isolate.”
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