Epidemic or pandemic? It’s academic

At a gathering of a couple of hundred people last evening, I ran into a couple I hadn’t seen in a few weeks. I asked the wife, “Are we hugging?” She answered, “Gosh I hope so!” and threw her arms around me. I asked the husband, we shaking hands? He thrust his hand out, grinning, and we shook.

Unless you’re one of those hapless people stuck on a giant floating Petri dish known as a cruise ship, we’re mostly going on as normal.

Still, more coronavirus cases are popping up. The World Health Organization, with typical self-importance, said it was “close” to calling the virus a pandemic.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has so far refrained from the pandemic moniker.

Pandemic is worse than epidemic, which is worse then endemic. One of the cable news networks, with equal pompousness, has gone ahead and declared a pandemic. Maybe it’s right. Cases are everywhere, and precautions are spreading. Jeopardy will tape shows without a studio audience.

Prodded by some senators and the employee unions, the Office of Personnel Management tried to clarity what federal agencies should do. The government, by some reckoning, has been a little slow to figure out a strategy. I started reading OPM’s latest 13-page guidance, but it made me sleepy. Luckily Nicole Ogrysko stayed awake and summarized it for you.

OPM can seem glacial at time, but I think it’s unfair to fault the agency for moving too slowly. The situation in the United States is not, as the AFGE states, “a very serious public health crisis.” It has that potential, and so agencies should have plans of action to keep going. But they should have those all the time.

AFGE correctly notes, agency continuity of operations plans “stress the use of telework during emergencies.”

Thus the coronavirus threat has become something of a proxy battleground for ongoing attempts by the Trump administration, or at least a few departments, to curtail telework. In its OPM letter, AFGE says “there may be differences about the value of telework during ‘normal’ times, this is not a normal time.”

To me an important question is, what can a given employee actually do when teleworking? Everyone can have conference calls — the dreariest experience known to mankind — and do email. OPM says they could also read reports, analyze documents, and prepare reports and correspondence.


But what about mission-related agency applications. It’s unknown the extent to which employees can access case management, financial, adjudication, national security, intelligence or human resources applications. Or whether they can monitor network or security operations centers from home. And if they can, how many sessions can agencies’ VPNs support simultaneously.

In its guidance, OPM states, “It is important for an agency to have a solid technology infrastructure established to support a high level and volume of connectivity.” Great, but if an agency doesn’t have that level of connectivity now, it’s unlikely to obtain it by next week.

We may know soon. The SEC has told its headquarters people to telework. Someone there might have a COVID-19 infection. The agency has been beefing up its telework capabilities, with nine in ten employees teleworking at least some in 2017.

Pandemic means corona virus will occur everywhere, but it doesn’t mean big numbers everywhere. We just don’t know yet, but the SEC will be a good test case.

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