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Coronavirus Actions, Plans and Risks to Consider

How are state and local governments responding to COVID-19? From public health actions to directives for staff, what emergency response steps and risks should be considered? Here’s a coronavirus playbook roundup.

by / March 8, 2020
Photo by CDC on Unsplash

The number of national media stories regarding impacts from the novel coronavirus, also called COVID-19, have skyrocketed over the past week. Many businesses and governments have activated emergency response plans, canceled nonessential travel and planned more based on local factors.    

This sample of coronavirus media headlines speaks to the scope of unprecedented challenges organizations are currently facing:

National Guidance and Specific State Actions Taken

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued interim guidance for how businesses and employers should respond, including these steps (with more specific details under each bullet at the website link):

  • Actively encourage sick employees to stay home;
  • Separate sick employees;
  • Emphasize staying home when sick, respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene by all employees;
  • Perform routine environmental cleaning;
  • Advise employees before traveling to take certain steps;
  • Additional measures in response to currently occurring sporadic importations of the new COVID-19.

Meanwhile, most states have taken proactive measures. For example:

California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday declared a state of emergency after the first death from the coronavirus in the Golden State.

“The State of California is deploying every level of government to help identify cases and slow the spread of this coronavirus,” Newsom said in a statement Wednesday. “This emergency proclamation will help the state further prepare our communities and our health care system in the event it spreads more broadly.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee told a news conference Monday that he directed officials to ask the state Legislature to designate $100 million from this year's budget to help fight the novel coronavirus. The total number of Washington state fatalities attributed to COVID-19 rose to 15 on Friday, March 6.

Even in less-impacted states, coronavirus actions are plentiful:

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer activated the state Emergency Operations Center to coordinate with state, local and federal agencies to help prevent the spread of novel coronavirus, even though no confirmed cases of COVID-19 were yet reported in the state.

Right now, we’re harnessing all of the resources of state government to help people prepare and keep themselves and their families safe,” said Whitmer. “By activating the State Emergency Operations Center, we’re ensuring that every branch of state government is on alert, and actively coordinating to prevent the spread of Coronavirus if it comes to Michigan. We are taking this step out of an abundance of caution. We will continue to take every necessary precaution to keep Michiganders safe.”   

Detailed information on Michigan state government actions, including tests conducted and positive and negative test results for COVID-19, can be found at: https://www.michigan.gov/coronavirus

In Oregon, this article from the Salem Reporter describes what can state government do if the coronavirus outbreak gets worse?

Similar articles are popping up in other states like Texas.

This article from CNN describes self-quarantine procedures.   

This article from the LinkedIn News Editor describes how corporations are dealing with the outbreak. Here’s an excerpt:

"Work from Home and Visitor Restrictions:

  • Twitter is strongly encouraging its 5,000 employees work from home, as is Square.
  • Facebook is no longer allowing visitors and requiring most job interviews to be conducted by video conferencing. UPDATE: The company has closed its Seattle office until March 9.
  • Stripe instituted a work-from-home policy and suspended global office visits.
  • 10% of JP Morgan's staff are required to work from home to test its resiliency.
  • Microsoft is encouraging employees who can work from home to do so until March 25.
  • UPDATE: LinkedIn (at which your friendly editor works) is asking all Bay Area employees to work from home until the end of March. …
  • Google is moving all job interviews to video conferencing and limiting employee travel. UPDATE: All Washington employees are now encouraged to work remotely.
  • Amazon has also halted all in-person interviews, moving them to video calls, and is restricting travel for its employees. UPDATE: Amazon is now asking all employees to work remotely until March 31.
  • Salesforce is asking its Washington employees to work from home until the end of March."

The LinkedIn article also lists conferences being canceled, schools being closed, in-store protocols, and free resources being offered — like Cisco offering free 90-day business licenses of its video-conferencing tool Webex.

This brief video describes what is being done in the United Kingdom:

U.S. State Government Plans, Opportunities and Technology Risks

Federal, state and local governments have been practicing pandemic planning for decades. I wrote this article on the H1N1 flu response in 2009, detailing some of the technology issues face by state governments with dramatically expanding telework. This creates a "different" type of emergency situation:

“Unlike most emergency situations, such as a fire or tornado hitting a building or data center, a pandemic could leave your infrastructure intact with your staff at home. Whether your employees are caring for family members, watching kids whose schools are closed or recovering from the flu themselves, staff may not be in the office. …”

More than a decade ago when I was CTO in Michigan, we struggled with the decision of whether to buy thousands of laptops for staff, in case the need arose to massively expand teleworking during certain emergencies. We decided against that purchase for various technology refresh reasons. However, many public- and private-sector technology and security teams around the world are making similar decisions right now because of COVID-19.

If those purchases are made, other questions will arise about capacity to roll out new equipment. Some challenges include: home network connectivity speeds, configurations to be used, proper security protocols for shared equipment, processes and procedures for the changing workflows and perhaps even the need for new training for staff.  

Or, do you allow staff to use home computers or laptops that are not as secure and/or lack the software and hardware required to perform all of the necessary business functions — while protecting the sensitive data? This cheaper option is the likely answer for many, but will certainly create headaches or even potential security incidents down the road when sensitive data ends up in the wrong places.   

I plan to return to this topic of technology change during emergencies in the coming weeks, but one word of caution to technology and security teams at this coronavirus moment. The biggest mistakes (and corresponding incidents) are made when the people, process and technology changes occur simultaneously, which is the situation we are in now. Hackers know this, and bad actors are looking for new vulnerabilities in systems and networks.

One important priority is to ensure you have subject matter experts who can back each other up with the right skills mix and staffing levels. Many state and local governments and smaller businesses have very small teams and struggle if key personnel become unavailable for several weeks. Refresh your call-in lists and system coverage support plans, given various pandemic scenarios of severity. Consider physically separating key personnel if COVID-19 is spreading in your community to reduce the likelihood of an entire group becoming ill at the same time. 

Also remember that your contractors will be facing similar challenges and trying to support multiple clients at the same time. If any key staff become unavailable, what are your contingency plans for technical support on a 24/7 basis or as needed? Examine contracts now to explore options and contingencies.

Side note: many of these recommendations may not need to be implemented until the virus risk level gets more severe in your government or business. One local business expert in Michigan told me that they were waiting for a confirmed COVID-19 case in Michigan before moving from a level 1 alert to level 2 action plan. Their system includes 3 severity levels, with level 3 forcing mandatory facility closures and separation of staff.     

This Colorado article offers several more recent pandemic planning examples for health-care staff:  

“The goal is to take steps to slow that decline, he added, make things less chaotic and avoid the dire life-or-death conundrums.

The plans detail how to deal with staffing issues, particularly as health-care workers get sick themselves, such as pulling administrators with medical training back into patient care or asking families to help with feeding and personal hygiene. As hospitals swell with patients, they could be doubled up in rooms or moved to conference rooms or other unused space, grouped among less serious cases.

Hospital and public health officials are now trying to review their crisis standards of care plans with an eye toward the specifics of COVID-19 infections. …”

Final Thoughts

In this video clip, Southwest Airlines' CEO described the travel situation on airlines nationwide as “feeling like 9/11.”  

Clearly, this global emergency situation is unprecedented and is “disruptive” in ways we have not seen in recent government playbooks. The new scenarios before us are not based on localized terrorism or online hacking, but a likely global pandemic that accelerates.   

Indeed, this situation may be longer-lasting than most people initially expected, and will likely change the way we conduct public- and private-sector business for at least several months.

This means that new processes will be put in place in numerous business areas, and these changes will be necessary to keep employees productive and services offered to residents.

But even as the breadth and depth and length of this coronavirus situation is unknown, technology and security leaders need to take a big step back and grasp the opportunities and risks being enabled via these people, process and technology changes.  

"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." — Martin Luther King Jr. 

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