Q&A with Denise Zarins, Fogarty Institute’s Chief Technical Officer

As we look ahead to the eventual easing of shelter-in-place requirements, companies are considering how to tackle the next phase of re-entry. Recently, we had the pleasure of hearing from Denise Zarins, Zach Edmonds, MD, and Gayle Kuokka, the dedicated re-entry leads for the Fogarty Institute, who held a collaborative discussion with our companies-in-residence and outside healthtech startups.

The team shared findings from its extensive research and subsequent plans, with the intent of helping attendees formulate their own procedures for getting back to business safely, while abiding by local regulations and considering which current safety measures will remain even after COVID-19 fears wane.

We sat down with Denise, who has been a force behind this effort, devoting significant time to finding the best resources and preparing the Institute for re-entry. (The following Q&A was written prior to Governor Newsom’s recent order to close certain indoor businesses.)

Q. Looking back at how FII prepared for shelter-in-place, what worked well and which elements should startups consider adopting moving forward? 

A. When shelter-in-place was first announced and it became clear that the pandemic was going to deeply impact all of us here in the Bay Area and beyond, we took swift action to close the office; communicate with staff, board members, entrepreneurs and appropriate outside stakeholders; and closely monitor the situation to assess next steps.

With new information constantly coming from multiple sources, it was difficult to keep up. That helped us recognize the importance of having a single point person who tracks local county orders and guidelines to ensure compliance. I recommend checking the local county website weekly for the latest news and orders and turn off the remaining outside “noise,” as it will only create confusion. Then task that person with proactively educating the extended team on the most important information, presented in an accessible format that’s easy to find and digest.

The Fogarty Institute was also very fortunate to have Zach, one of the COVID-19 leads for El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, on our team, and he did a tremendous job keeping us apprised on the progression of the pandemic. Of course, we realize not everyone has this level of expertise available, so we have aggregated several important resources that we share below.

Q. Where are some areas where you’ve seen particular challenges?

A. I’ve noticed that even though the startups are eager to get back to work, there is a big discrepancy in people’s comfort levels, especially when the companies are co-located. Some are very relaxed, while others are wary about going back to an office environment. Without a strong sense of empathy for the highest-risk or most concerned individuals, you risk animosity and problems.

The answer is to make sure there is open communication and a mutual understanding about being sensitive to helping people feel safe.

At the Fogarty Institute, we approached re-entry based on three pillars: Support each other, social distance and increase sanitation. We support each other by working remotely as much as possible, performing daily self-checks upon arrival at the office and staying home if you are sick or have been diagnosed with COVID or been in direct contact with someone who has. Social distance by wearing a mask, assigning dedicated workspaces, identifying a fixed schedule and developing policies for visitors. Increase sanitation of all high-traffic areas, post signage and offer disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer.

Q. What are the top priorities startups / companies should consider as offices begin to re-open? 

A. Right now, we urge the leaders to encourage remote work as much as possible, given the increasing number of COVID cases.

If team members are coming in, stick to a fixed schedule so it’s easier to track who’s onsite and ensure you don’t have too many people in the office at once. Keep a log of who comes in, so you can easily communicate if someone is exposed or gets sick.

Also remember that it’s human nature to revert to old habits, so keep reinforcing proper hygiene and a commitment to taking care of each other by sanitizing shared or high-touch surfaces. You might consider closing common areas, but if not, commit to keeping them sanitized because you can’t assume employees will. And remember that given the shortage of sanitizing supplies, you need to plan your internal activities based on what you have or will be able to obtain. And then make them easily accessible – if the employee has to look for them or make his or her own mix, they most likely won’t do it.

Be respectful of others and their space, and wear your mask unless you are in your own closed office.

Q. What surprised you the most about the situation?

A. I don’t think anyone expected the length of shelter-in-place, and it’s going to be interesting to see how things progress and how long we will be working in this type of environment. People have been very resilient in adapting to this new normal. The biggest challenge for smaller companies is going to be assigning a person to do the compliance work, as they are already short-staffed, but I can’t emphasize how important this is as the county continues to release new signage, posters, guidelines, etc.

It’s important to note that each county has its own set of orders, policies and procedures. Make sure you visit your county website for appropriate information.

Finally, it’s vital to remember that the only constant will be change.

Key resources for California and Santa Clara County 

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