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UC records show 'glitches' in COVID plan, frustration over cost of consultants

University of Cincinnati
Posted at 8:52 AM, Jan 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-11 18:47:20-05

CINCINNATI — Leaders of the University of Cincinnati's COVID response plan expressed "urgent concerns" during the fall semester about key parts of UC's effort to educate and protect students, according to internal university records requested and reviewed by the WCPO 9 I-Team.

The documents, which include more than 700 pages of emails and Microsoft Teams discussions, reveal the frustrations and pressure UC officials faced as they executed their high-stakes plan at a time when furloughs were also affecting morale.

Dr. Chris Lewis
Dr. Chris Lewis

"I think what we're talking about is some people who recognize that we had labor pains as an institution," said Dr. Chris Lewis, UC's associate vice-provost for Academic Affairs and a university physician.

Lewis is a leader on the university's physician-led COVID team. UC records show Lewis has also been involved in resolving what he described as "glitches" in UC's effort.

The university paid two outside consultants - Deloitte and Salesforce - a combined $793,000 for services focusing on technology, data development and operations.

Lead consultant Deloitte, which was paid $590,000, developed and launched the university's COVID Check app. Deloitte developed and launched key parts of the infrastructure, and provided maintenance and operations for the university's COVID education and response network.

UC also paid consultant Salesforce $203,000 for internet cloud and data services, including up to 1,000,000 log-ins of the UC system.

Combined, the two consulting companies received $793,000 for their work during a time when UC faculty has complained about poor morale and furloughs.

"For me, it further erodes morale," said Dr. Amber Peplow, an Associate Professor of Communications at UC-Blue Ash.

Dr. Amber Peplow
Dr. Amber Peplow

Peplow is also the chair of the budget and compensation committee of the UC chapter of American Association of University Professors, the union representing faculty.

"To spend that kind of money on consultants now is just inappropriate," Peplow said. "I'm very disheartened."

Some leaders frustrated about speed of app's approval

Lewis said the app is a focus of UC's multi-prong strategy that enables users to receive and share COVID-related information, and take surveys that - if passed - provide a green pass that allows students to access certain buildings.

Deloitte declined to comment on its role and responsibilities for UC.

University records show Google suspended UC's Android phone version of the app in the last week of August.

University of Cincinnati COVID Check app
University of Cincinnati COVID Check app

In a series of emails, Google told UC officials that it suspended the Android app because the university didn't provide an updated privacy policy, test user login credentials, a letter from a public health official confirming the need for the app and failed to address other issues required for it to become active.

According to Deloitte's contract with the university, UC was responsible for providing the correct information to third-party vendors like Google.

Apple had also delayed activation of the app for iPhones, but approved it much faster than Google, according to an email Lewis sent to Google. At the same time, students could still access COVID Check on their computers, Lewis said.

In a Sept. 3 email, Lewis told a Google engineer, "We are in dire need of approval," and urged Google to provide a detailed list of everything needed to activate the account.

On Sept. 4, in a follow-up email, Lewis told Google, "Our entire City of Cincinnati leadership and University of Cincinnati leadership teams are quite frustrated by our inability to get this simple issue resolved expeditiously."

On Sept. 8, UC emails indicate Google was preparing to "lift" the suspension.

On Sept. 14, UC's Android app was finally available on Google Play, according to an email from Josette Riep, the director of software development for the university's IT department.

"The urgency that you note in my communication about the Android app – you know – I'll own that," Lewis told the I-Team. "I'm a perfectionist. I want something right and I want something done for all of our students.

"It was frustrating when there were issues beyond our control as an institution with a third-party vendor."

Complaints

The inability to use the COVID Check app on popular Android phones for more than two weeks prompted complaints.

In a Sept. 9 email to other members of the university's COVID team, Dr. Kim Miller, the executive director of UC Health Services, wrote that they were receiving a "barrage of calls, emails, and complaints."

In a statement provided by the university, Miller said her "goal is 0 service issues, and those we received were not acceptable."

"The last month hasn’t brought any user issues that I’m aware of," MB Reilly, UC's Executive Director of Public Relations, wrote in a Dec. 17 email response to the I-Team.

UC records show only 55 of the 17,000 COVID Check app users submitted complaints and requests for help. Most of the problems were related to students not using the app properly, according to UC records.

"That is a huge success in my book," Lewis said. "It's something to be proud of."

But at times, some leaders on UC's COVID team seemed frustrated with the consultants.

In an exchange of emails on Sept. 30, Lewis and Miller both complained about the accuracy of test data provided for the COVID dashboard on the university's website.

Salesforce worked with the university's IT department on the data for the dashboard, according to UC records.

In October, UC's Department of Biomedical Informatics (BMI) began taking a prominent role in the dashboard project.

"Thanks for your willingness to get involved with this effort that is crucial to the health and safety of our campus," Lewis wrote in an Oct. 5 email to Brett Harnett, an assistant professor in the university's BMI. "It is a TOP PRIORITY for the president and provost. Please let me know if there is anything you or your team need to get this going asap."

It's not clear from the I-Team's review of UC's records if the consultants and/or the university's IT team were at fault for discrepancies in test data mentioned by members of the COVID team.

The I-Team asked the Salesforce public relations department to comment on the company's role and responsibilities at UC.

Salesforce has not responded to our request.

Some of the issues were related to the way test data had been tracked and "merged" into the Salesforce system, Reilly wrote in a Dec. 17 email to the I-Team. "The issue here is multiple reporting streams to collect data. Initially, we accepted self reports of COVID positivity. Testing materials were hard to get at one time."

On Oct. 7, UC's Director of Institutional Research Susana Luzuriaga Voight emailed Lewis and shared her perspective on the issues with test data.

"Honestly, I think that Deloitte has been responsive and delivered what the UC team requested," Voight wrote. "The issue is that the requirements from inception were not aligned with how we are to report cases publicly."

UC added language to its COVID Dashboard website, explaining that data may change.

"Updates to prior daily case counts are the result of self-reported cases that were not actual cases upon investigation, or additional true cases that needed to be adjusted retroactively,” according to the UC website.

In October, UC learned that its COVID Dashboard received a B+ rating from ratecoviddashboard.com, a website that evaluates dashboards published by colleges and universities.

Forty percent of the 348 COVID dashboards rated by the website scored a B+ or higher.

According to an Oct. 8 email from UC Assistant Professor Michelle Chyatte, Salesforce and Deloitte worked together on at least three COVID Dashboards that received A ratings.

"Not fantastic but not bad," Chyatte wrote. "Give us a few more weeks and I think we will hit the A range."

Student response

Nearly 2,000 UC students tested positive for COVID-19 during the fall semester, according to information published on the university's website.

The I-Team interviewed more than a dozen UC students about the university's COVID response plan. All of them told us the university had done a good job of keeping them informed and protected during the pandemic.

"I feel safe," said Devan Marshall, a graduate student from New Jersey. "I haven't had any issues personally."

"They're definitely taking correct steps to try to at least neutralize the problem as much as they can," said Alex Cass, a fourth-year student from Cleveland.

But Cass said he found it hard to believe UC's report indicating only 56 out of 17,000 users had complained to the university about the COVID Check app.

"That seems a bit low," Cass said.

Braden Devine, a fourth-year student from Lebanon, said UC successfully handled "a lot of moving parts with navigating the virus."

His biggest concern was seeing some students still not taking the pandemic seriously.

"It's disappointing to see Snapchats or whatever with house parties going on and the bars being full," he said.

Still, all of the students who spoke with us were optimistic about the impact of UC's efforts combined with distribution of COVID vaccines.

UC's spring semester started Monday.

Lewis said the university efforts in the fall will create a smoother and safer transition back to campus.

"I think our students heard loud and clear about what to do to protect themselves and others," Lewis said.