Guest Post: The Covid-19 Omnishambles

Part one of three guest posts by Deane Jessup:

The Covid-19 Omnishambles – Guest Post 1 – Testing – Deane Jessep

Like everyone else in Auckland, I have been managing the yo-yo effect with my family and clients’ lives.  But I have to say; I am wearing thin.

For context, I am outgoing, confident, highly adaptable, and have a great home in which to be locked down.  I already work from home and am in an industry that is doing well; daily, I enjoy helping clients design, deploy, and migrate to cloud communications platforms.  My life’s work has been assisting communications within organisations and outwards with clients and suppliers.  I have never felt as rewarded in my career as I do right now, especially with modern tools allowing my customers’ staff to work from anywhere.

So why am I wearing thin? There are many reasons, some worrying me more than others.  Over the next few posts, I will discuss some problems from a slightly different point of view of others, starting with a look at testing.

A real testing screw up

Testing quality and quantity has me worried, because unless we can get this right, long term planning will be impossible.  Testing management is terrible, and all readers will have been following the press, so I won’t reiterate much here.  What caused me to write this was an account from a friend; by reviewing this I will avoid the armchair commentary of outright lies and mistakes, and instead attempt a limited factual analysis.

My friend works in an office that shares a floor, elevator, toilets, and a café with one of the locations of the recent outbreak:

11th August they find out we are going into lockdown.

12th August they find out from the media that their office is affected.  The article wrongly states the office is on one floor, secure, and very few people come and go.  Knowing this and that there is one positive and three symptomatic cases in their very own building my friend decides to go and get a test.

13th August they report to their GP for a test in the morning.  They were also given this leaflet, and after testing asked to self-isolate away from their family until the test results come back:

13th August my friend settles into alternating between a cold garage and bedroom on their own for family isolation. Neither were good for their physical or mental health.

16th August they post a frustrated message on Facebook about not hearing about the test results.

17th August they reach out to their GP, the results were not available.  They then call the two phone numbers on the helpful flyer above.  One number Healthline on 0800 358 5453 is useless as they inform that they do not have access to test results or timeframes for testing.  ‘The free government helpline’ (0800 779 997) is even worse, the message immediately states: “Kia ora, you’ve reached the government help line. This line is no longer active” before rambling on about some other equally useless websites, and then hanging up.

Go ahead, call it for yourself.

18th August a friend who saw their Facebook post gives them a link to the Testsafe website and says to call back their GP and they can look up the results. They do this, the GP looks up the results, and promptly tells them; “all good, you are Negative”.

This story is an embarrassment for many reasons. I also noticed that the same screw ups are affecting isolated citizens, causing real release delays for whole families; beyond incompetence, it is avoidable heartbreak. So much of this Covid-19 NZ Omnishambles is heartbreaking; is it any wonder I am wearing thin?

A long post already, at this point I would like to give you, the reader, the chance to stop here.  The rest of this post will focus on what I see wrong, and because I want to be helpful, I will also propose how I would have handled things differently.

What to do?

As an expert in customer experience, my role involves understanding human nature, interpreting it, and deploying solutions to solve problems for my clients, particularly problems caused by rapid change.

Here are the issues as I see them and what I would do:

  1. A physical visit to affected workplaces could quickly assess other affected companies, this did not happen fast enough, leaving people to work out their own risk based on speculation.  I last visited staff from this office on the 30th July, it took me two days of following the press to assess my risk.  My friend also assessed his own risk a full 24 hours before his own company was in contact with a plan.  These communication delays are the real cause of the dangerous armchair speculation on origin of the outbreak.

The fix? I would minimize the value of corporate privacy risks and provide a transparent register of affected locations updated on a website. This could be done by address, including number of positive cases and the timeframe of risk. Frankly, I would democratize contact tracing.

  • Doctors are not being appropriately informed on how to access test results.  Presumably, positive test results get actioned faster, but in being slow there are flow on impacts:
    • People will be hesitant to re-test even if they feel sick.
    • Unnecessary physical and mental health impacts from living for many days thinking you may have the virus.
    • Unnecessary inconvenience with your life effectively stopping until the all clear.

The fix? Train all health professionals on accessing the testing databases. Run a register of compliance that they understand. When notifying ‘negative’ test results promptly is difficult, implement a Service Level for positive results, add a buffer, then tell people you are all clear if you have not heard by X date.

  • If you tell people they will be isolated in quarantine after the results of a positive test, a high percentage of people who suspect they are sick will avoid the test.  I know four people with this view who were near the outbreak.

The fix? Quarantine with compassion, don’t lock people up, give them an option of home quarantine with compulsory location tracking, ankle bracelets would do the job.  At least it would be a choice. Science has shown that even if both options are lousy, compliance and acceptance is higher with a choice.

  • The leaflet handed out after the test was not helpful and focused on fear and propaganda rather than action. It also indicates that the coding for the reasons for testing is likely not collecting accurate data:
    • “You have come for a Covid-19 test because you are unwell with symptoms that you are concerned about…” – This is obviously wrong if you are getting tested for contact purposes. People could pick this up, read the first line, and walk away.
    • “This means our staff will talk with you to decide whether or not you get tested today…” – Wonder why people were being turned away? Look no further.
    • “The last community case of Covid-19 in Auckland was reported on 22 May 2020…” – Out of date, incorrect information being shared.
    • “Since that time, we have done more than 50,000 community tests…” – Propaganda plain and simple, and unnecessary to convey.
    • For general help and advice … call 0800 779 997 – The number does not work.

The fix? Shorten the leaflet to one page, keep the information factual, mandate it is kept up to date by those handing it out. Don’t publish incorrect information ever, it causes rumors and disinformation. Adjust the leaflet so there is more than one for each testing scenario with tailored information to each of the possible situations.

  • The tollfree number screw up is the most significant aspect of this story. Frankly, it is an avoidable disaster. A quick Google search shows this number is published all over central government.

The fix? There are four options here that would be better than the current situation:

  1. Adequately staff a call centre; use modern technology and respect the public’s desire to seek help during crisis.
  2. The number could be automated with modern technology; I would design the call queue with an Intelligent Integrated Voice Responder, including reporting up to date information and redirecting callers to correct places, even going so far as to SMS out useful web links.
  3. Use an auto attendant to redirect enquiries; “Push 1 for… Push 2 for… etc). Then send the calls somewhere meaningful.
  4. If a recorded notification is preferred then don’t start the message with “this number is no longer in service”; typically, a large number of people hang up before hearing the rest.  Go straight into the list of information, i.e. “For this look here, etc”.

It would not be fair to say this is a complicated situation, no customer service situation is simple, experts in this field are plentiful. The core issue is we need our government to be focused on resolution, not on communication. As I have a professional interest, I’ve applied under the OIA for a report on the number of calls to 0800 779 997 in the last eight months and how long were each call.  I will share this once I get a response.

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