At the onset of the pandemic, Federal, state, and local government agencies across the country needed to rapidly reach disparate populations with information about COVID-19, testing, and vaccines – and swiftly gather and assess pandemic data across multiple agencies and populations.

To help address these new and unique challenges, the Federal government turned to Maximus, which has designed, developed, and delivered impactful health and human service programs for more than 40 years. MeriTalk sat down with Lisa Slaughter, senior vice president at Maximus Federal Services, to take stock of how agencies utilized data and technology throughout the pandemic response and how lessons learned are informing new efforts to share and leverage data to improve public health.

MeriTalk: You’ve been actively involved in helping public health agencies respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you tell us a little bit about your efforts?

Lisa Slaughter: It started back in March 2020. Maximus got a call from the White House COVID Task Force asking if we could attend a Sunday meeting about issues like setting up Federal test sites and getting results back to tested individuals. We had already been supporting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) information line through a few pandemics, but nothing like COVID-19.

The next day, they called us to support 47 sites across 12 states that were models for the rest of the country. We had a customer engagement center set up that same week and helped them build interfaces directly with labs so that results could be delivered within 24 hours. We used data analytics to provide a report each morning for the White House that consolidated data on test results, the age groups of tested individuals, and the locales that were being hardest hit. It was an extraordinary time in our history; we were proud to serve.

That experience led us to help multiple states, counties, and private companies, as well as to expand our assistance to the Federal government at scale. When vaccines were ready for distribution, the CDC asked us to set up a massive customer engagement center to handle a wide range of inquiries about the vaccines – including general vaccine questions and helping people find resources for childcare and transportation. We worked very closely with our partners to set up the latest technology that could scale to handle the demand and to communicate with citizens on their desired platform and schedule. We were prepared to take 500,000 calls per hour as well as handle text message inquiries. We brought in over 20,000 staff to support this effort – all in about 45 to 60 days.

MeriTalk: How have you seen agencies change their use of data and analytics because of pandemic-related needs?

Slaughter: The shutdown of society demanded that we share whatever information was available to help stem the tide of the pandemic and find the path back to normal. Agencies realized that they needed to share data to coordinate with other agencies, testing facilities, vaccines suppliers, private companies, and universities. By sharing this data and applying data analytics, the CDC was able to find, control, and contain the next hotspots, overcome the next supply chain shortfall, and help communities with the greatest need.

The requirement to share data certainly put a strain on aging Federal infrastructures and the agencies’ capacity and flexibility to interface with each other. Processing huge amounts of data was difficult. As a result, agencies are looking to quickly modernize – move to the cloud, employ more artificial intelligence solutions, and ensure data security.

MeriTalk: What do public health agencies need today to have timely, accurate, and complete data readily available for public health decision-making?

Slaughter: They need to collect public health information in a central repository. States are required to report certain data to the CDC but it’s challenging to do it easily, consistently, and on a timely basis. In our mobile society, one person in New York can get on a plane and infect somebody in California or overseas within hours. Therefore, we need visibility and detail about who, how, when, and where hotspots are occurring in order to achieve a holistic view of data in almost real time.

MeriTalk: Do you see Maximus as a pivot point in facilitating the collection and sharing of pandemic data across the Federal government and down to state and local governments?

Slaughter: In a way, we are. Because of our work with state and local governments, we know the types of information they have and how their systems integrate with one another. And we work with some of the key Federal organizations, which share similar data challenges. We look at questions like “If CDC and Veteran Affairs shared this data, what would be the benefit to the public?” Because of our cross-agency work in citizen services, we are finding connections between states that they may not be able to see themselves. We can say to our Federal and state clients, “Did you know that this Federal agency or state has X? You might want to tap into that resource.”

To enable more information sharing, the government is looking for pilots and grant opportunities to test concepts before making a full-fledged commitment. We are developing those programs so we can present them to our clients and say, “It’s not going to cost you as much as a full-fledged commitment, and we can test and learn along the pilot journey.” Developing and implementing a proof of concept, especially for AI and data analytics, can reduce the cost of entry into a program and have greater long-term cost benefits. The cost of change can be overwhelming, especially in this era of tight budgets.

MeriTalk: What lessons learned can you share from the pandemic response, and how will those lessons inform the future of public health?

Slaughter: There’s an understanding that agencies need to get past the data ownership hurdles that have prevented data sharing. Acquiring and implementing a common data platform is at the top of a lot of agencies’ lists. There’s also an understanding that we need to find new ways to deliver healthcare and ensure it is equitable for all socioeconomic categories.

MeriTalk: You worked with partners to bring in the latest technology to get the word out about vaccines. What technologies did Maximus bring in, and how did they help to reach underserved populations?

Slaughter: We had high confidence in the idea that a large percentage of the population had access to a cellphone. Our partnership with Verizon, Twilio, and SuccessKPI enabled us to quickly disseminate information as fast as possible via multiple contact channels – voice, text, and the web. If someone wanted the closest vaccine location, they just texted us their zip code. Within seconds they would get a list of the closest locations. They didn’t have to wait online or talk to an agent. The voice and SMS channels enabled real-time data for vaccine information. We also provided services in over 100 languages.

We integrated the calls with the U.S. Postal Service ordering system, allowing callers to order test kits without speaking to a live agent. Our data analytics engine connected to all contact channels so we could provide real-time data as well as user experience information to the CDC. We tracked the number of test kits that were being ordered and whether customer engagement center agents needed more information to address callers’ concerns. Our team pioneered innovations to design as much self-service as possible, across all engagement channels.

MeriTalk: What unique capabilities does Maximus bring to bear as it strives to deliver timely, secure, and equitable services to the public?

Slaughter: This is where Maximus shines because we can offer assistance on so many levels of customer engagement. We’re continuously updating our customer engagement center and business process outsourcing technologies to improve efficiencies to address the needs of our customers. Now more than ever, we’re enhancing the customer experience because we have real-time data. Lots of government agencies hear that it takes forever to find the right entity that can help citizens seeking services. We guide our government clients toward the experience they want constituents to have; in the long run, it saves agencies time and energy.

Our Center for Health Innovation is staffed by our public health experts and epidemiologists. We bring their knowledge to bear on our public and Federal health engagements whenever needed. In addition to hiring subject matter experts, we’ve made strategic acquisitions to provide innovative technology solutions to our customers and are always looking for creative ways to enhance Federal agency operations with product-agnostic solutions. Maximus is focused on moving people forward.

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MeriTalk Staff