Each time Baltimore faced a hurricane or other safety threat through the years, three workers in the city’s health department would work the phones to ensure senior living facilities were prepared.
They would check to make sure thousands of vulnerable residents had electricity, water and other essentials.
“It took all day,” said Molly Martin, assistant commissioner in the health department’s division of aging. “It was more than 400, almost 500 calls.”
In recent weeks, city health officials were able to ditch the phone tree in favor of a new computer system created by a corps of programmers from the volunteer group Code for Baltimore. The system can automatically email, and soon text, the facilities to assess needs and provide information.
In the first few weeks of operation, the system has been used to email surveys asking about specific needs related to the coronavirus pandemic, checking, for example, if facilities lack personal protective gear or whether they need help understanding government orders on testing or infection control. Health department staff can respond directly or point them to outside resources.
The effort to create the system began in March and was accelerated when the scope of the pandemic was becoming clear.
Seniors and their communities have been particularly hard hit by COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. State data shows people age 70 and older account for more than 70% of deaths in Maryland, and some nursing homes were responsible for some of the biggest early outbreaks.
The city health department does not inspect or police the facilities; that’s a state responsibility. Local health officials wanted an easier way to pass on advice and information, as well as gain a broader sense of immediate needs and potential longer-term issues.
So far, the new system has alerted officials to which facilities have needed supplies.
But Martin said responses from facilities also have alerted officials to another widespread issue: Quarantining seniors were lonely and bored. The health officials were able to link those with electronic devices virtually to outside groups. For others, they arranged to deliver packets containing crossword puzzles, reading materials and other activities.
“This is helping us manage our response in a way we couldn’t … have,” said Mike Fried, the health department’s chief information officer.
The extra contact has been useful, particularly for explaining changing state and federal pandemic guidance, said Phil Golden, director of Springwell Senior Living in Mount Washington, which offers independent and assisted living as well as memory care to 240 residents.
Golden said the guidance was changing so frequently, the health department uses the system to facilitate weekly calls specific to the needs of different kinds of facilities, such as nursing homes and assisted living facilities. The health department also sets up virtual meetings where subject matter experts share presentations and answer questions, which Golden said helps facilities like his respond when residents test positive.
“Everyone in the health provider network is dealing with a crush of new issues and a greater need to communicate this year,” Golden said.
“Our communication with [the city health department] historically was pretty much limited to their annual survey and an occasional winter storm,” he said. “This year, we’re on a first-name basis with four or five staff members there due to their outreach during the pandemic.”
While the new system has been helpful, creating it wasn’t easy. Known as a customer relationship management platform, such systems are common in the business world, allowing companies to manage interactions with customers and save information for analysis. They are often custom-built and costly because of the labor and licensing costs.
Aware of the complexity and expense associated with such systems, Fried connected the department to Code for Baltimore, a local chapter of Code for America, which taps digital know-how for civic projects.
Code for Baltimore worked with Owings Mills-based Bellese Technologies, a civic-minded government technology development firm, where staff normally dedicates about 12% of their time to volunteer projects.
Few public agencies use such systems because of their cost, said Mark Adkins, corporate initiative lead at Bellese.
He couldn’t put a value on this program, which the developers don’t plan to license and instead will make available for free to other cities. Since March, when the effort began, Adkins said, a few people to dozens have worked on the project.
“It made sense in our mind to take on a project with Code for Baltimore to help create a system to improve health care in Baltimore City and make sure everyone is getting the care and resources they need,” Adkins said.
Another volunteer corps from Johns Hopkins University transferred contacts and other information to the system from spreadsheets.
Adkins said the system can be used to respond to day-to-day needs and manage short- and long-term emergencies, from Code Red heat days and hurricanes to infectious disease outbreaks and mental health issues, Adkins said.
It can contact facilities hourly if needed, Adkins said. If facilities don’t respond, health department staff can follow up with phone calls or visits.
“We hope this frees up people at the health department, who would otherwise be spending time on the phone just to contact everybody,” he said. “We think there is a pretty big need for something like this in cities and we hope to make other cities aware of this pilot system.”
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