COVID 1-1: Jeff Donnell's Story
Once upon a time there was a pandemic...
COVID-19 first hit my radar a year ago, as I noticed a few news articles about a novel coronavirus emanating from China. It went from a minor blip on my blissful ignorance screen to a major target worth tracking closely while attending an onsite employee health clinic conference in January 2020 (back when in-person conferences were still a thing). The chair of our advisory board, Dr. Peter Lee, spent most of his time during the conference on the phone. Peter was then chief medical officer for GE, and he was talking with colleagues, experts from the World Health Organization and others around the globe about the early warning signs associated with SARS-CoV-2. Peter made it clear to me this virus was serious, with a very real potential for significant spread.
Fast forward a year, where I find myself trying to fathom both the professional and personal impact of COVID-19 — a difficult task as there is no real way to distance myself from a pandemic we’re still neck deep in.
Everyone has a COVID story, and Enterprise Health is going to begin sharing content about the effects of COVID-19 on our clients, our employees and others we collaborate with. Someone has to be the guinea pig, so here is my story.
How has COVID-19 affected you professionally?
In my 35-plus-year career I have never worked as hard for a prolonged period as I have in the last year, thanks to COVID-19. At Enterprise Health, our clients are the people responsible for managing occupational and employee health — the individuals on the front lines of keeping the workforce present, productive and healthy. Their world, and by extension ours, has been turned upside down by this pandemic. We jumped into the deep end of the pool with our clients, collaborating with them to rapidly sense, respond and handle the almost daily curveballs hurled our way.
I quickly ditched our original 2020 business plan, and agility became our core operating principle — our best laid plans were waylaid by COVID, and we adjusted as the situation demanded.
How has COVID-19 affected your organization?
We embraced remote work more than a decade ago, so we experienced zero hiccups as we already thrived operating at home in our pajamas.
On the existing client front, the pandemic has only reinforced the value of close collaboration, and we worked across our client community to re-configure existing functionality to meet new and changing-daily requirements.
On the new business front, we experienced a four-month standstill, as our prospects were consumed with understanding and responding to COVID. After this cooling off period, new business quickly went to a full boil as organizations realized the pandemic was not a short-term situation and proper response all but requires a strong digital health IT infrastructure.
The pandemic also dramatically altered our marketing program. We had plans to attend and sponsor fifteen conferences, almost all of which were canceled. We quickly pivoted, and hosted eight COVID-themed webinars over the course of the year.
The other major organizational impact has been on our people. Like most everyone, the challenges wrought by COVID have taken a toll. Our team has been working late nights, weekends and even holidays to support our clients — most recently as they have geared up to vaccinate their employees and their communities. This is on top of the difficulties posed by the pandemic, including child care, at-home schooling, illness and quarantines, and that “if I don’t get out of this house, bad things will happen” feeling that affects us all. Fatigue has set in, and has become a constant companion.
How has COVID-19 affected you personally?
Until a month ago, my COVID story revolved around the work Enterprise Health has been doing to support its clients, and that was close enough to home. Like many, I wore a mask, was socially distant (which some would say is not a stretch for me), and mostly stayed put. As the months wore on, my wife mentioned frequently that she missed me traveling for business.
Until late December, I knew only a few people who contracted the virus. That all changed at the end of the year when my brother David tested positive. David is in his late 40’s, has Downs Syndrome, and lives with my parents. He had to be hospitalized, and I had to arm my mother with information about rulings from the Office of Civil Rights with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicating that she had every right to stay at the hospital, despite COVID restrictions. Unsurprisingly, my mother also contracted COVID, and my father can’t be far behind.
Soon after, my son-in-law tested positive, and my daughter recently lost her senses of smell and taste — a telltale sign of COVID-19. Unfortunately, my daughter is going through chemotherapy to treat breast cancer, so she is at significant risk. As of this writing, my brother is home and on the mend, my son-in-law and mother had mild cases, and my daughter’s symptoms were mostly limited to anosmia.
I now have a much greater appreciation for the anxiety COVID-19 can cause. While I desperately wanted to help my parents, doing so would risk exposure and prevent my wife and I from lending support to our daughter. We have been relegated to leaving meals on doorsteps, checking in by phone and keeping our fingers crossed. The inability to meaningfully intercede takes a real toll.
What does the future look like in the wake of COVID-19?
Unfortunately, it took a pandemic to dramatically underscore the critical importance of occupational and employee health. As a medical director at one of our corporate clients explained, he has received more recognition, interest and support in the last nine months than in the previous two plus decades of his occupational health career. Now that the C-suite is fully attuned to what happens when your workforce is not present and productive and to the near impossible task of managing pandemic response without the right digital infrastructure, we expect to see significant growth in our sector.
To add to the irony, occupational health professionals already know a great deal about health surveillance, administering mass vaccinations (typically for annual flu programs), and preparing for medical response in the event of a disaster. Our clients can teach the general medical profession a thing or two, and many of our occupational health partners are now spearheading community-wide COVID vaccination programs based on their demonstrated experience in managing massive flu shot programs.
While the crystal ball is still a bit cloudy, I predict that we will have to find a new normal rather than get back to normal, as the duration and direct impact of COVID-19 will leave an indelible stamp.
What have you learned from living through this pandemic?
Here are my top 5:
- Resilience is the new coin of the realm. If your organization and your employees can persevere and push through the significant challenges of COVID, you can probably handle just about anything.
- Agility is a business imperative. The pandemic has shown us we can do far more, far faster than we ever imagined. While the current breakneck pace may not be sustainable, once the dust settles those who can maintain an agile footing will likely prosper.
- Trying to manage employee health on paper, homegrown spreadsheets or not-suited-for-the-task applications barely works absent a pandemic, and the demands of COVID-19 make it clear that a robust occupational health IT infrastructure is mission critical.
- While most of us would prefer not to operate in crisis mode on a sustained basis, in the short-term it causes one to rethink established norms. In our case, we quickly created several new offerings to help clients and prospects respond to this coronavirus, building on and unbundling our full solution. The learning from this has been invaluable.
- Last but certainly not least, appreciate the value of those around you. As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, family, friends, colleagues or clients can fall victim to an invisible virus that can alter or even end life in no time flat. While we are still riding on a coronavirus roller coaster, we must find time to appreciate and revel in the relationships we have worked hard to cultivate.