In the early summer of 2020, we at the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) had a lot to be proud of. Just a few months earlier, in March, my team in epidemiological operations (Epi-Ops) witnessed the full-on assault of COVID-19 on our state’s citizens. We remembered vividly the stacks of positive lab results piling up as the caseload seemed to spike almost overnight. And we especially remember the gut-wrenching sense of urgency at the need to pull resources together from every part of the department—and soon from across the entire state government—to marshal a coordinated response.

By the first weeks of July, things seemed under control. Under the disciplined, testing-heavy approach of our then-Governor Gina Raimondo, and through the resourcefulness of RIDOH, the state had become a standout for its pandemic response. Since April, deaths, hospitalizations and infections had plummeted and our Epi-Ops team allowed ourselves a sigh of relief. It was on the strength of this performance that our Governor became one of the first in the nation to commit to bring Rhode Island students back to their classrooms.

Warning signs: an increase in COVID-19 numbers

In August, however, warning lights started flashing again. Like much of the rest of the nation, Rhode Island started seeing an increase in positive-test rates and hospitalization. There was even talk about shutting down the state for a second time, and the hallowed goal of keeping classrooms open appeared to be in jeopardy.

While we had always been at center stage in the state’s response, the pressure to turn things around in the face of this new surge was pushing the limitations of our department’s response capabilities. Our top priority was a fast, efficient and large-scale testing and contact tracing capability, along with the capacity to field a mushrooming volume of inbound calls. We recognized that we needed more resources—in staff, training, technology and, most importantly, process expertise—to mount the response needed to safeguard the return to classrooms in September.

The time is now: Using IBM Garage Methodology to act fast

As much as we knew we needed to act decisively, we also recognized the stakes in choosing a partner with the right mix of process expertise, deep technical knowledge and broad services. And given the urgency of the situation, the ability to hit the ground running and deliver a quick and continuous series of successes was even more important. From the moment we chose IBM to coordinate our COVID-19 call center efforts, these qualities were on full display.

Led by government and healthcare experts from IBM’s Cognitive Process Services practice, the team worked closely—following the highly collaborative IBM Garage Methodology—to map out all the key process flows and pain points. From this, they defined a series of parallel work streams to follow, each with its own rigorous timelines and deliverable metrics, and all following an Agile development approach. As the main conduit of COVID-19 information to Rhode Islanders, contact center operations were an early focal point.

To scale a COVID-19 operations and contact center in just 12 days

Job one was the creation of a dedicated COVID-19 operations/contact center focused on eligibility screening, test scheduling and test results retrieval for K-12 students and faculty. In the span of just 12 days, the IBM team implemented a contact-center-as-a-service solution staffed by multi-lingual, US-based agents trained in HIPAA protocols.

The Center also featured an automated response system, based on Salesforce software. By incorporating machine learning technology, the response system was able to provide insights into COVID-19 transmission patterns that ultimately enabled our leaders, including the Governor, to deliver more intelligent, data-driven guidance to an eager public.

Using the same flexible resources, the IBM team immediately followed up with a new focused effort on the contact tracing and case investigation process, and a second contact center focused on providing general COVID-19 information. The new contact center also introduced a new capability designed to further improve efficiency and the quality of the experience for Rhode Islanders: AI technology. Deploying IBM watsonx Assistant—the same technology at the heart of many other successful state-level COVID-19 information hotlines—the team created an automated virtual agent called RHODA that answers questions in simple, conversational language. Importantly, it uses semantic analysis to detect when a caller should be routed, automatically, to a live agent.

Listen to Kristine Campagna talk how Rhode Island and IBM came together to support people with COVID-19 better:

Back to school

As planned, the K-12 contact center went live on September 14, the day classrooms across Rhode Island reopened. And it was none too soon; the number of cases, as had been predicted, was increasing. With the increase of new infections, keeping in-person learning as a viable option—without becoming a source of local outbreaks—required rapid investigation and tracing.

To our relief and joy, the solution was doing exactly what it was supposed to do. Compared to before, the speed of case investigations increased five-fold, such that every positive test of students or staff was reported to the affected school within 24 hours.

By late October, with the solution having processed more than 4,500 cases, RIDOH and the IBM team recognized the unique opportunity to extract on-the-ground insights that could be used to develop more targeted information campaigns. To that end, IBM developed a system to pinpoint how and where COVID was spreading. Within days, those insights were embedded into the Governor’s press conferences and the department’s own public service messages.

It was late on a Friday evening, weeks after students had returned to their classrooms, and the joint IBM and RIDOH team was again burning the midnight oil. But this time seemed different. As we watched the processes we had developed fully functioning, there was a shared pride in what we built. It was in that moment that I also sensed that we were no longer separate teams working on a critical problem. We knew we had a real partnership.

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