How Can Informatics Make the Post-COVID Workplace Safe and Secure?
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As COVID-19 vaccination programs kick into gear, private and public workplaces are weighing up the risks and benefits of asking employees to return to the office. Affinity Empowering Inc, who offer workplace eHealth compliance services, have rolled out an end-to-end COVID-19 testing program to assist employers in their return to work protocols. We spoke to Affinity CEO Scott Storrer to find out more.
Ruairi Mackenzie (RM):How did your company’s work in COVID-19 and the Return to Work/Stay at Work program contrast with your prior experience in providing occupational health?
Scott Storrer (SS): Affinity has over 20 years of occupational health experience, which has enabled us to forge strong working relationships with healthcare providers and laboratories across the country. We also have developed a strong infrastructure to process health data in a HIPAA compliant manner.
That foundation enabled us to pivot into launching the COVID-19 Return to Work/Stay at Work program. The biggest contrast is the urgency of these health services. We were previously focused on drug testing, seasonal flu vaccinations, etc., which are all important services, but there is not the same immediacy.
With the COVID-19 program, our clients are depending on us and our partners to turn around test results within 24 hours. They’re depending on our team to get their employees tested regularly, to get these tests processed accurately, and to provide the analytics that they need to make sure that their business is running safely and smoothly. Our work has become critical, but fortunately, we have the experience to get the job done right.
RM: How do you measure the success of the Return to Work/Stay at Work program? What value does it provide to those who work with Affinity?
SS: There are a number of ways we can measure success. One is simply the positivity rate of our COVID-19 tests, which is significantly lower with our clients than it is in the general population. We attribute this success to regular testing and workflow safety analysis. Another metric is the rate of sample recollection, which is a problem that can occur in mass testing clinics. The average rate of recollection is around 4%; ours is just 0.27%. Finally, in terms of numerical measurements, our average PCR test result turnaround time is 16 hours. This is absolutely essential when it comes to practical safety protocols; you need those test results immediately so you can respond before a COVID-19 case becomes a workplace outbreak.
Those metrics are important, but they only tell part of the story. We provide detailed analytic reports to employers so they can not only see COVID test result data, but also more intricate information about how their employees are complying with safety protocols, any workflow issues that might trigger safety concerns, etc. Our goal is to provide the safest possible operating environment for the companies and schools that work with us.
RM: How have informatics solutions assisted your programs?
SS: Data is central to the COVID-19 Return to Work/Stay at Work program, and really to all of our occupational health services. Our Assure tech platform is designed to streamline everything we do. It’s connected to the labs, the healthcare providers, and the patients. It enables us to securely handle sensitive patient data and sample information in a way that is HIPAA compliant. It also allows the labs to quickly and accurately report results, without the fear of mixing up samples or labels, since everything is handled automatically.
The Assure platform and its data management also allow us to generate the metrics reports and workflow analysis for those who oversee the COVID-19 programs on the client side. We can use the platform to coordinate billing and administrative data as well. It is really a multi-faceted tool that has been developed and updated over many years to meet the needs of our business and of everyone with which we work.
As the nature of COVID-19 and testing continues to evolve, informatics and data management will become even more essential in detecting viral variants. We are working to ensure that detailed viral genomic sequencing can occur in our partner labs to assist in this detection effort.
RM: How is Artificial Intelligence integrated into the Assure platform?
SS: Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other related technology-based strategies are integrated into the fabric of the Assure platform, most notably when it comes to logistics. AI is used in conjunction with logistics coordinator oversight to make sure samples are routed to a laboratory facility that has the capacity to handle new tests within the required 24-hour window. We use AI to assist with scheduling collection events, to help determine the appropriate COVID-19 test (antigen, PCR, or PCR pooled) for the location, and to handle patient medical records and to facilitate the consent authorization process. We have also started using AI to assist with the targeting of our community outreach efforts, which is essential when it comes to getting people tested and comfortable with the testing process.
RM: Assure also provides users with access to mental health resources designed to address COVID-19 anxieties. How were those developed, and what has the response been to them?
SS: The COVID-19 pandemic is a collective trauma and will undoubtedly cause lingering mental health issues for many of us. At Affinity, we understand that returning to a shared workspace may bring up anxieties about the virus. Fortunately, we have significant experience in the arena of mental health, thanks to the expertise of our Chief Behavioral Health Officer, Dr Michael Tkach, PsyD. Dr Tkach has a background in addiction recovery and most recently worked at the Hazelden Betty Ford clinic before joining the team at Affinity.
Dr Tkach has experience developing and managing digital resources designed to prevent treated addiction patients from returning to use. He initially brought that skill set for Affinity’s workplace addiction recovery program, but quickly pivoted to developing resources for COVID-19 and mental health. This is something that comes as an option available to be packaged in the Assure platform. That’s how important wellness is to us. We can’t build trust and peace of mind without addressing the mental health component of COVID-19.
The response has been great. Individuals have access to articles, videos, classes, meditations, and they really seem to value a direct approach to addressing mental health. Having these resources come from a third party to the employee using the program, Affinity sidesteps the stigma of an employee needing to ask their boss or supervisor to allow them to participate in the program.
RM: What is your view on the future of the workplace post-COVID-19? How much of the workforce do you believe will remain as home or remote workers permanently and how will this impact office life?
SS: This is a very interesting question and I think it depends on a great number of variables. One is the type of work, certainly, some occupations require more in-person interactions than others. Another is the nature of the virus over time. Will our vaccination campaigns bring the general population to herd immunity? Do the viral variants threaten to create a surge in cases? This is notoriously hard to predict. Most experts believe the SARS-CoV-2 virus will become endemic, so it is likely that we will be navigating COVID-19 for a long time.
Another variable at play here is the individual. Some of us are extroverts and are yearning for the in-person interactions that office life can provide. Others may enjoy the comfort and convenience of working remotely. My best approximation is that many businesses will adopt a hybrid model, which would allow them to scale back on office space while compromising on the need for in-person interaction and the convenience of remote work.
Even a hybrid business model would benefit from the Return to Work/Stay at Work program. People will need to feel comfortable entering the office, which is a shared, indoor space, and our COVID-19 testing and logistics services can provide that peace of mind.
Scott Storrer was speaking to Ruairi J Mackenzie, Senior Science Writer for Technology Networks