One worker in an empty cubicle farm

Going viral: Considerations for agency tech preppers

While “going viral” usually refers to a popular meme on the internet, the emergence of COVID-19 is behind an *actual* viral epidemic -- one that promises to impact public- and private-sector organizations as well as average individuals worldwide.

Over the past month, fear of contracting COVID-19, the illness resulting from coronavirus, has prompted organizations to cancel conferences and curtail non-essential business travel. Over the past three weeks those fears have kept people from going into their offices in cities where the virus is quickly spreading. Chinese officials reported the virus in late December, and by early February there were already reports of the virus on every continent except Antarctica. By the end of February there were tens of thousands of cases reported globally and thousands of related deaths.

Within government agencies, plans for how to react and respond to coronavirus are changing over time, since even virology, epidemiology and disaster preparedness experts cannot confirm how COVID-19 will act or transmit in the United States.

The Defense Department held a March 2 news conference where Secretary Mark Esper and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley both stressed that DOD is prepared to address short- and long-term scenarios, both domestically and overseas. Milley said DOD is working with operational commanders to assess the impact of the virus on military operations around the world. A command post exercise in South Korea has been postponed, he said, but Exercise Cobra Gold in Thailand is continuing. Milley also said that military research laboratories are working to come up with a vaccine.

Commanders are taking all necessary precautions because the virus is unique to every situation and every location, Esper said. "We're relying on them to make good judgments," he said.

In early February, Office of Personnel Management Director Dale Cabaniss issued guidance on various HR flexibilities agencies could use in the event the virus puts employees or their families in quarantine or isolation, including telework, alternative work schedules and emergency hiring and pay options.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention likewise has posted interim guidance for business and employers planning their response to the virus.  

With this in mind, here are key concerns affecting public-sector IT in regard to the coronavirus spread:

IT supply chain. Since technology products and support services coming from China and other Pacific Rim countries are often much less expensive than those produced elsewhere, government agencies (like many other global enterprises) have become dependent on goods from various Pacific Rim countries and India, which have been deeply affected by the coronavirus.

Contractors are also likely feel the pinch. Slowdown in production at tech factories in China "will impact the ability to get components," procurement expert Larry Allen said. "Obviously, the longer the outbreak, the bigger the issue" for both government and commercial consumers of IT hardware and systems. A case in point: On Feb. 25, the online portal of NASA's Services for Enterprise-Wide Procurement acquisition contract warned of delays in deliveries of items shipped from affected areas.

Call centers. Both employee and customer call centers tend to see volume spikes when epidemics or other disasters happen, according to Xaqt, an automated call center company. Government agencies may receive calls about the coronavirus itself, or its impact on public services, as well as calls from employees pertaining to policies, procedures and attendance at their jobs. Federal, state and local agencies might need to consider establishing hotlines, ramping up automated call-center services, offering opt-in SMS updates or issuing alerts related to this or future epidemic.

Telework. When the coronavirus began spreading in China, remote work began in earnest as a way isolated or quarantined employees could continue working. According to reports, more than 300 million workers in China have been telecommuting in recent weeks.

Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and professor of health policy and management, said he believes this health crisis will show public-sector agencies that they can be “less dependent on having people move from place to place or come into an office.” However, telework and video conferencing may stress a home user’s internet capacity, causing slowdowns in some areas, suggested Asha George, executive director of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense think tank.

Experts believe this viral epidemic will encourage more private- and public-sector enterprises to utilize cloud storage and embrace remote work applications and consider new options for teleworking.

Collaboration apps. With employees working from home to avoid catching or spreading the virus, online collaborative work applications are taking off. Use of the WeChat Work app in China has exploded this year, adding 1 million new users every day to the country’s WeLink teleconference software. As a result, China's remote-working solution market is expected to reach $477 million by 2024, up from $169 million in 2019, according to Beijing-based consultancy Qianzhan Industry Research Institute. Similarly, U.S.-based Zoom, provider of remote video-conferencing software, has seen its stock rise more than 60% in the past month, as more private- and public-sector employees opt to use this and other remote-work applications to communicate and collaborate, rather than come into to the office.

It’s not just Office documents and spreadsheets that are being shared. Erin M. Sorrell, member of the Center for Global Health Science and Security and an assistant professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at Georgetown University, said information regarding COVID-19 is being shared among government employees and contractors. “People are getting the information out quickly.”

Critical IT employees. While IT staff often “gut it out” and work when they’re not feeling well, contagion concerns regarding COVID-19 may force employees to stay home, leaving mission-critical systems with a skeleton staff.  More broadly, the cancellation of various IT-related and developers conferences, as well as the concern around the wisdom of attending others, may hinder the development of new applications, delay product releases and postpone essential training.

Disaster planning. If nothing else, the potential epidemic is forcing public-sector managers to revisit their disaster planning strategies.

“Right now, agencies should be testing their systems. Posing questions and seeing what the issues are.” George said. They should be planning ahead for “worst-case scenarios with national security and biological events.”

“These [issues] are happening more frequently than in previous history,” George said. “I wish everybody wasn’t so surprised. As difficult as it is, organizations should be looking to future, even as we’re trying to respond … because this is going to continue to happen, again and again.”

About the Author

Karen Epper Hoffman is a freelance writer based in the Seattle area.

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