Tools for getting ahead of the spread…
We are not out of the pandemic yet and the variant Omicron is a good example of why we need the EHSdesk Virus Tracker to track the spread, collect the data, and contribute to national efforts to have a clear view of the progression of the virus. Our podcast with Janeece Tanaka and Betsy Cottle highlights how EHSdesk Virus Tracker gives companies the edge they need to be on top of the latest variants and government requirements for recording employee exposure.
Host – Steven Maggi: Everybody hates the virus. You know what we’re talking about – COVID-19. It’s been going on – it was supposed to be for a month or two, we’re two years into it – and we have no idea when it’s going to end or even how it’s going to end. But we have to deal with it, and that’s what we’re going to talk about today. We’ve got a new tool for getting ahead of the spread – we’re not out of that pandemic yet, new variants and so forth – it’s called EHSdesk Virus Tracker, and it’s designed specifically to track the spread, collect the data, and do everything that needs to be done. With us, we’re going to talk to a couple of experts in HR Solutions, and with us first is Janeece Tanaka, the Director of Human Resources at Epsilon Systems Solutions Inc. She’s been doing this for over 15 years, and I guess Janeece, you’ve never seen anything like this before in HR have you?
Janeece Tanaka: No, this has been something that all HR professionals have had to learn on the fly really quickly, and things change all the time with different federal, state, local health orders and mandates, so it’s been a very busy year for me – or year and a half for me – and all HR professionals in general.
Steven: So, you can really appreciate what you have to do in your own company. This new tracker that we’re talking about is really designed to help people get ahead of this thing, right? Because, you know the difficulties they’re dealing with.
Janeece: Yeah, exactly. Before we had a tracker, we were trying to track COVID cases on an Excel spreadsheet, and as we got more and more cases, it was just such a large spreadsheet. It was a job in itself to try and update the spreadsheet and keep it clean, so having this tracker has definitely saved us time and has also made us more efficient and accurate.
Steven: I guess this process has been something else. Like you say, you start with a spreadsheet and at some point, you know you need more. Was this kind of a project that kind of kept developing as things kept rapidly changing and you had to find out how to keep this all in one spot?
Janeece: Yeah, this just happened to be something that our – one of our other departments in the company internally was working on, and so, as we were kind of facing these challenges, they were working independently not knowing we were facing these challenges, and then once we kind of talked about it, we came together. I had a problem, they had a solution, and we were able to work together to get the tracker up and running.
Steven: Well, let’s talk about EHS Virus Tracker, exactly what is it? So, kind of talk about what are some of the features and why it’s so important for HR departments in a number of different industries.
Janeece: So, we’re using the EHS Virus Tracker for two things: initially, we started before vaccines came out, we were tracking COVID cases, being able to track the spread and quarantine and when people were able to come back to work and when their quarantine was over, so that was done on a spreadsheet prior to this. Luckily for our company, our COVID cases have gotten much better in all the areas that we work in, so I’m very thankful for that. But now, since our company is under President Biden’s executive order as a federal contractor, we’re having to get our employees who are working on covered contracts vaccinated, so we’ve kind of been able to switch gears and use the tracker to help us track vaccinations.
Steven: You know, in some states now, they’re putting a stop to President Biden’s order – it’s going back and forth – of course, you deal with the Feds, you have to do it. This works across the board, doesn’t it? Because even if you’re not under that exact executive order, you still want to have those stats, because you never know when things are going to change and to be able to use that information to make decisions.
Janeece: Exactly. We are a federal contractor, so we’re under the executive order, so even though the OSHA ruling for employers with 100 employees or more is being challenged in the courts, the executive order for federal contractors is still moving forward so we’re still having to face those challenges of tracking, and then there are also companies out there, even though they’re not under a specific executive order or the OSHA mandate, they are still choosing to mandate vaccines for their employees. So, it’s still a job in itself in trying to track all of the vaccines and doses and everything.
Steven: And I guess people really shouldn’t be afraid of this. It doesn’t necessarily force anything. It’s just a way of keeping records. So, people should not be afraid that somehow – this is not a way that they’re going to be forced to do something they don’t want to do or anything like that, but merely a method that HR can stay on top to know exactly where they are at that particular moment.
Janeece: Yeah exactly, I see this as a tool to help HR departments or whoever in a company is having to track all of this. It’s a tool that can help track the vaccines and automate some things. We’re able to program some reports so that we can get some automated reports going out from the system to kind of give HR and managers a sense of where their employees are at.
Steven: Now, what’s Epsilon’s situation. It’s mandated for all employees, like you said right, because you do so much work with the federal government?
Janeece: Yeah, we are currently working through compliance with the executive order. We have until January 18th as of right now, so we’ve been working on getting the word out, educating our employees about the order and the vaccine, and trying to get everybody who is working on a covered contract vaccinated so we can meet that January 18th deadline.
Steven: Everybody is talking now about this variant, Omicron, and you know there’s going to be more variants as things go on, it’s just what happens in these types of situations. How does EHSdesk Virus Tracker deal with that? Is it flexible enough to deal with different variants as they come along and so forth?
Janeece: We’ve been following all of the federal, state, local health orders when new variants come out, so if we hear one is more contagious and in a specific area – the virus is really hot in that area and masking and social distancing is required or advised – then we make sure we are following all of those mandates when a new variant is introduced or kind of on watch.
Steven: And it’s got to be frustrating, because I imagine now a large part of your job in the world of human resources, is now you’ve got to keep up on this stuff constantly. You’ve got to be aware of what’s going on, and I would imagine you even want to kind of stay ahead of things and try to take a look and see what possible things might be coming down and try to prepare yourself, because it’s just an area that you can’t ignore.
Janeece: It’s been very challenging to stay ahead of things and to try and keep up-to-date on all the topics that come out, and things change so rapidly that one week we could be working towards one way or our company policy is one way, and then the next week it changes, so we have to figure out how to change policy, how to shift gears, how to communicate it all. So, it’s been rapidly changing, and we have to just be able to adapt pretty quickly.
Steven: Well, I understand you can appreciate these types of situations because marathons are something you do. You do these quite often. How many have you done – it’s an amazing amount as I recall?
Janeece: So, I do half marathons, because I’m not that crazy. But I’ve done about 12 now.
Steven: That is terrific. Well, this is one marathon you’ll probably never forget. The Virus Tracker is something that everybody should look into. You can get a hold of Epsilon Systems Solutions Inc. to find out more. Janeece thank you so much for being with us. We really enjoyed it. We’re going to leave you with one last question though, and this is a tough one, as you look ahead and so forth, and this is all new to us, do you think we’ll be talking about this in a year, two years, three years – what are your thoughts on the future?
Janeece: I hope that we’re not talking about this three years from now, but with the virus, it’s going to mutate and we’re going to have to find a way to live with the virus and not just lock things down and mandate things and make things difficult and everchanging. So, I think it’s not going to go away, but we’ll find ways that we can adapt.
Steven: Well, and that’s where the Virus Tracker can help. Janeece thank you so much for being with us today. I really enjoyed chatting with you.
Janeece: Thanks Steven.
Host – Steven Maggi: Well, let’s bring in Betsy Cottle now. She’s a Program Manager at Epsilon Systems Solutions, an IT pro for over 30 years – focused the last 25 years on the development of software solutions to meet changing requirements and, boy, if there was a change in requirements, how to deal with the virus. Now, we were talking before about the EHSdesk Virus Tracker, but that didn’t just pop up now; that goes back to 2020.
Betsy Cottle: Yes, initially we did create a version in 2020 and the focus then of course was very much on positive COVID-tested people – whether or not they had to quarantine, folks that had gotten exposed, maybe their kids required them to quarantine and of course the length of the quarantines were complicated – and so it really drove the need to keep track of all of that in a software, which at the time was dealing with testing and vaccines, but the main focus was on cases of people who had COVID.
Steven: So, obviously there is a change, 2021 – we’ve got different leadership in the White House, different rules now – and you had to make some changes.
Betsy: So, 2021 really brought many changes in rapid succession. Tracking the vaccine data came to a forefront and many new aspects had to be accounted for. Specifically, we had to update the system so that you could attach the image of your vaccine card or have a drop-down that says your HR person or manager reviewed the card. Who could have predicted that we would be scanning vaccine cards into software, but that is how it went. Eventually, when talk of vaccines becoming mandated, it became clear that companies needed a way to keep track of not only who had the vaccine, but who does not plan to get the vaccine, as well as who is planning to get the vaccine. And then even further on, the idea of religious and medical exemptions came through, so we were sort of in a permanent mode of adjusting and modifying and trying to keep up with the requirements, which ended up making us realize that the initial vaccine record is kind of never closed. We had to make it so that you could edit.
Steven: So, the key word here then is “flexibility” and that’s what the Virus Tracker, I guess from the very beginning, you knew that this thing wasn’t going to stay real rigid and so forth, and had to have the capabilities to be flexible with things like variants and so forth that we can’t even imagine coming up in the next months or years or what have you.
Betsy: Yes, it’s certainly an unusual situation for software development, but fortunately, we are the authors of the EHSdesk Virus Tracker, and I do have my development team in-house, so we have a great leeway to upgrade the software. There’s not huge barriers in our way, and also, we work very closely with the great HR team here at Epsilon and the COVID taskforce, so we have nice direct access to subject matter experts who are really fully on top of the situation and able to convey to us,
“Hey, here’s what the software needs to do in addition to what it was already doing.”
Steven: And that includes the various metrics you look at and the reports and so forth. You’ve got to constantly adapt as these things change.
Betsy: Yeah, it’s been a very interesting scenario. Initially, it was really all about comparing how many people had COVID versus who had gotten the vaccine, who had been tested, a lot of extracting of the data and metrics like that, but it soon became clear this year that we needed a very unusual report – at least from the software standpoint – we needed a report of where there wasn’t data. So, it’s unusual to think about, but really you need an accounting of every employee. So, you need the employee list to drive the report and then everybody needs to be categorized: Have they had their vaccine? Do they plan to get their vaccine? Do they not plan to get their vaccine? And then, most importantly, who’s left? Who are the people that have no data in the system because that’s really the target audience that HR wants to go after if your stated goal is to have everybody 100% categorized?
Steven: For employees, there are different ways they can help. I mean, obviously part of this is just to understand it and try to get that information so you guys can take it and put it into these reports. It’s so necessary to track where all this is going.
Betsy: Yes, can you imagine the burden on HR that they couldn’t possibly have ever imagined two years ago? So, we did make a self-reporting page – initially just for someone to report that they had their vaccine – but then recently, we had to upgrade it to actually make it so that they could report not only that they had their vaccine, but they don’t plan to get a vaccine, they do plan to get a vaccine, and we even had to update the self-report page to let them attach their vaccine card. We also have a self-reporting page if someone sees a COVID hazard. At one point, there was a concern from the executive order from the White House about people violating the whistleblower laws, so it came into play that people needed to be able to report their COVID hazard concerns anonymously. So, we did that as well.
Steven: People that have some issues with this, and I think everybody has an opinion on this as we move along, they shouldn’t be afraid of this though, right? This is not a way to come back intrepid, but really just a way to get these requirements that are really quite frankly for companies like Epsilon that deal with the federal government, you don’t have a choice anyway. You’ve got to keep these statistics.
Betsy: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, there’s no point in trying to hide behind what’s going on. It is what it is, and if someone observes an unsafe act, they should feel completely free to report that, because that’s most companies like Epsilon have a COVID task force, and they want to know about that. If there happens to be a certain area where there’s a mask rule and it’s turning out that no one’s wearing their mask, maybe you do want to report that anonymously; but the most important point is to get it reported so that the company can do something about it.
Steven: You know, Betsy, you’ve been in the business for some time now and you’ve seen a lot of things, but I guess you’ve never seen anything like this. In terms of the future, virus reporting and so forth, this isn’t going to go away and that flexibility that you talked about earlier is going to have to continue, I imagine. Well, how do you see the future, first of all like in this next year and then, God forbid, years to come?
Betsy: Well, we are working on right now whether or not the mandates go through – I know there’s some debate about that – but we still feel that at some point, there’s going to be a pool of employees who are going to be under weekly testing. The system is capable of doing weekly testing, but it’s not mobile-enabled and it’s not specifically designed for the purpose of weekly testing. So, we are kind of judging what is going on right now to determine if we’re going to put the extra effort in to make a very purpose-driven – I’m going to report the results of my tests every week. You know, to make it easy, to make it mobile-friendly. It’s going to be complicated on the workflow side because it’s not clear as to whether everyone’s testing results will be due on a Friday. What are you going to do if the testing results are in? What if the person’s on vacation? Some of these mandates – exactly how to manage them as a company is quite complex. But we’re game to make sure that the software can help. And then, the other thing, the other direction we’re seeing now is that there’s so much tracking of data that executive managements are wanting to understand the Delta change. So, if you had 250 people vaccinated last week and, let’s say, 30 that didn’t intend, and then next week now you have 300 people – you want to know that it went up by 50 people. There is this interest in showing progress. After all, if the mandates do go through, every company is going to have to make a good-faith effort to prove that they did their best effort to make sure that all of their employees are either vaccinated or under weekly testing or don’t fall into the category, but either way, you’re going to have to have the data, so those are our immediate goals as far as 2023. Well, we haven’t really gotten that far because we’re hoping that there’s no need for this software, but on the other hand, I have a feeling that maybe these concepts and the tracking of vaccines, viruses, quarantines, cases, testing – I don’t know that that’s going to go away in 2023.
Steven: Well, I think you’re right. One last thing, we had talked last time about the type of person you are, and people always think that software developers just think almost like Mr. Spock did on Star Trek, you know, where everything is logic and you said, “Yeah, that’s a part of it,” but you also have an artistic side. Have you found that with all this stuff in trying to figure the right way to do it that that artistic side kind of comes in, because you have to look at it a little differently? This stuff doesn’t have a simple process, but it’s always changing and therefore you kind of need to have a different outlook on how to deal with all this?
Betsy: It’s been a bit of a creative process, more so than a logical process. We’ve had to think about what we already do, which is keeping track of environment health and safety data. We’ve had to be creative in ways of morphing that into tracking virus data. There are similarities, there’s differences, but yeah, it’s been a creative process and of course, we want it to look good. We want it to be usable, so we’ve had to make it look nice. We’ve done a bit of a marketing campaign, so yeah, it has tapped into my creative side, and it’s been kind of an interesting but unpredictable activity, that’s for sure.
Steven: Betsy, you live in a fascinating world. Thank you for all you do and thanks for being with us today on the show.
Betsy: Okay, thanks Steven.