Healthcare's supply chain issues and contact tracing are challenging for all industries.
Around the world, people are in various stages of government-mandated lockdown or shelter-in-place with no clear end in sight. While companies have transitioned to remote work, where possible, or implemented new sanitation and social distancing measures, the inevitable question remains – when can we all return to our places of work?
Companies across industries will be confronted with many challenges. It’s evident that healthcare supply chain issues are impacting healthcare workers and their patients, but the problem is more pervasive than anyone initially anticipated. Likewise, most organizations are entirely unprepared and ill-equipped to handle virus exposure management for employees returning to the office.
We explore the implications of healthcare’s supply shortage and the challenges of returning to work for all industries.
Supply Chain Issues in Healthcare are Everyone’s Problem
In the wake of COVID-19, healthcare providers are facing increased demand on their staff, equipment, and supplies. While healthcare workers are highest on the priority list for PPE (personal protective equipment), there continue to be shortages of N-95 respirators, gloves, and gowns, leading many to make do with inferior products. According to Bill Northrup, a University of Minnesota-trained thoracic and cardiovascular surgeon currently leading a medical device company as Vice President of Physician Relations and Education, “other supplies and medications are also in short supply because we have been overly dependent on China for them.” Due to the politicization of all issues related to the coronavirus – the origin, naming, level of infectiousness, and handling of the situation – “the supply chain for many of these components will likely remain broken until it is rebuilt.” While the Defense Production Act was used to require General Motors to build ventilators, at the moment, we appear to have enough – partly because the mitigation efforts of shelter-in-place and social distancing are working.
As we consider the next six to twelve months, we expect to see a decline in hospital admissions for COVID-19, freeing up ventilators for more routine surgical care. The biggest demand looking ahead is still likely to rest on PPE and drugs until a more reliable and apolitical supply chain is built.
To avoid making the same mistakes again, Dr. Northrup expects “major healthcare systems will begin to create a better back-up supply of all the items required to handle another curve-ball like this COVID-19 pandemic.”
Minimizing Exposure as Employees Return to Work
The timing of when employees return to work will largely be determined by which recommendations or guidelines are used in each location of the country. Unfortunately, the guidelines provided by entities such as the Federal Government, CDC, OSHA, and FEMA are not always in sync with one another. Be that as it may, it’s looking like people will be heading back to work very soon in certain states, counties, and cities, where some degree of social distancing will remain as a requirement.
What does this mean for employers? As workers make their way back to offices, warehouses, and manufacturing plants, close contact is all but a guarantee. Companies will suddenly be responsible for launching health monitoring procedures that they previously never had to consider. At a minimum, companies should be prepared to answer the following questions regarding their staff at any given moment by the time workers are back on-site:
- Who is currently sick and needs to be quarantined?
- Who has been exposed to the virus and needs to be quarantined?
- Who has already healed and likely has immunity?
- Do visitors coming to company locations currently display symptoms?
Some recommendations for employers require temperature testing and PPE. Dr. Northrup shares that, “Temperature testing is a logistical nightmare that may endanger the one taking the temperature if the temperature-taking isn’t self-administered.” Likewise, “if some kind of testing for infection or immunity is required, we will have an even bigger logistical nightmare administering these tests.” Widespread testing is just not available here yet and is likely to be a major factor for employers opening up worksites.
Beyond testing, we’re hearing a lot about contact tracing – a resource-intensive process in public health that ‘traces’ people who have been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. As shared by Erik Ortiz for NBC News, “[…]contact tracing on a national level could cost in the billions of dollars and require hiring more than 100,000 people, [but] public health experts say it’s an important step, along with increased testing, to stopping the spread of the virus.”
To aid the Bulgarian Ministry of Health in their fight against the spread of COVID-19, ScaleFocus, a consultancy headquartered in Sofia, Bulgaria, created and launched a mobile application called ViruSafe to give users the ability to track their health status and aid in the contact tracing process. Through voluntary location sharing, the application can build a heatmap and notify persons of potential exposure with contacts reporting symptoms. We expect to see an uptick in technology applied to the contact tracing and exposure tracking process to reduce the cost of this necessary action. Concord is in partnership with ScaleFocus to develop an application called VirAlert for enterprise use for this very purpose, as companies will likely be interested – or required – to prove their ability to enforce safe worksite practices for the health of their employees.
It’s still unclear how long before the entire country is able to begin their journey back to work. What we do know is that the healthcare supply chain needs to be rebuilt as a first priority to protect our healthcare workers. Secondarily, we need to apply technology to the contact tracing and exposure tracking process to reduce the demand on healthcare providers and help companies create safer work environments for employees.