The “second wave” of coronavirus isn’t just a theory. It’s already here in some regions. Public health experts are predicting a second wave to hit the US around November. We should be prepared for a cycle of lockdown and release every 3 months, on average, until a vaccine is ready, which won’t be for a good 12-18 months from now. Prepare your plant: get your anti-corona package NOW.

The novel coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease which it causes, have rocked the world. In around 3 months since the virus was announced, we’ve seen about 2.5 million confirmed cases. It caused over 170,000 deaths worldwide so far, plus many more deaths that went uncounted due to limited testing and uncertainty about how to attribute the cause of death.

In the face of an unknown disease with an estimated global fatality rate of close to 7%, one country after another implemented extreme social restrictions. During much of March and April 2020, approximately half of the world’s population was under some level of lockdown. But as the curve begins to flatten, many countries are either planning to loosen, or are already loosening, restrictions on movement and permitting people to return to work.

Although this is welcome news to the economy, the prospect of returning to a limited working life and social interactions brings with it the high risk of a second wave of infections and more deaths.

A “second wave” is already approaching

The “second wave” of coronavirus isn’t just a theory. It’s already here in some regions. Just as Asian countries were the first to be affected by COVID-19, they were also the first to lift severe restrictions and the first to experience a new surge of infection.

Singapore and Taiwan kept both infections and deaths at a low rate, thanks to early lockdown measures, but both countries saw a far greater second wave of infection after restrictions were lifted. All of the Covid-19-related deaths recorded in Singapore occurred during the second wave. A number of small towns in China are also currently under lockdown for the second time.

There’s no reason things will be any different in the rest of the world. Public health experts, including Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, are predicting a second wave to hit the US around November. A leading epidemiologist has warned that we should be prepared for a cycle of lockdown and release every 3 months, on average, until a vaccine is ready, which won’t be for a good 12-18 months from now.

COVID-19 is our new reality.

In the first round of COVID-19, we saw that organizations that were prepared to deal with any kind of crisis situation fared better than those that hadn’t put disaster planning into practice (see our previous blog). Global health experts believe that Asian countries that learned from the SARS epidemic in 2002-3 were better placed to deal with the initial appearance of the novel coronavirus than Western countries, which had no recent experience with a serious infectious disease.

With the second wave of coronavirus already visible on the horizon, manufacturing companies and process plants need to respond before it breaks over them. Recovering from a single attack of disease without any disaster plan is extremely difficult. Doing it a second, third, fourth, and ongoing times is close to impossible.

Prepare your anti-corona package before the second wave arrives

Now is the time for plants that weren’t ready for the unexpected crisis to put an anti-corona package into place to maintain production and ensure that business continues during subsequent waves of infection. The approach of process manufacturing plants has to be two-fold: making accommodations for employees to continue to work safely, and preparing plants for remote management.

1. Make accommodations for employees

Ideally, as many people as possible will be able to work from home. That could require buying or lease devices and software subscriptions so that they have the tools they need to work remotely. It is important to refigure monitoring and control programs so that they can be managed from a distance (more about that below).

However, the majority of process plant employees can only do their jobs on-site. To that end, it’s crucial to implement sufficient safety regulations to prevent infection from spreading rapidly through your workforce, and communicate them clearly so that employees feel safe enough to come in to work.

Vital accommodations for employees include:

  • Reducing interaction between employees. Cut down on non-critical services, institute split shifts and staggered start and end times, and add more entrances and exits to remove bottlenecks.
  • Providing sufficient hygiene and sanitation. Clean and sanitize equipment more often, make sure that everyone has enough masks and gloves, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, and rearrange work areas so that employees are at least 2m apart.
  • Improving employee education. Send frequent reminders and put up visual signs to educate employees to wash their hands frequently, observe social distancing and respiratory etiquette, not to share personal items, and to follow sanitization policies.
  • Isolating and safeguarding employees. Proactively quarantine anyone at high risk of developing COVID-19, run daily temperature checks, and implement policies to incentivize self-disclosure of early symptoms.
  • Protecting crucial worker roles. Identify and isolate critical employees without whom the plant couldn’t function, and cross-train other employees to fill their role should it become necessary.

2. Safeguard the plants through effective monitoring and analytics

Taking steps to safeguard plants is every bit as important as safeguarding employees. At a time when process industry companies stand or fall by the speed with which they can respond, and the on-site workforce has been slashed as much as possible, full visibility into and understanding of plant conditions at all times is crucial. Errors that would normally be caught and corrected early by someone who happened to be passing will slip through unnoticed with fewer employees around, causing major incidents further down the line. The fact that many plants are delaying vital maintenance because they’re trying to reduce the number of people in the plant at any one time only compounds the issue.

Most factories have numerous IoT sensors and connected devices in place but lack the integrated system that makes sense of the stream of data. The right analytical monitoring solution can aggregate and interpret the millions of data points generated every day, so that you can track changes at the plant and identify emerging problems early and at a distance. Once becoming aware of the true situation, it is possible to make informed decisions about maintenance, replacing parts, and optimizing production, based on data instead of hopeful guesswork. It places plant owners and managers in control of fluctuations within the plant, so that they can plan the best choices ahead of time instead of constantly reacting to the unexpected.

In this way, plant management might decide to carry out early fixes before a piece of equipment requires a costly repair job, for example, or deliberately choose not to carry out a certain maintenance act right now. It’s possible to pick the most convenient time for a repair team to come into the plant and carry out a number of maintenance tasks in one trip. This kind of visibility is valuable even under ordinary circumstances, but it’s especially important when working with a skeleton crew on-site and repair team visits must be scheduled remotely.

Without effective monitoring and analytics, plant managers end up chasing one fire after another. You’re constantly on the back foot, trying to deal with the most recent crisis. In this hectic environment, you’ll have neither time nor bandwidth to take measured, considered, high-level decisions about plant management, find a way to manage when a third of your engineers are in quarantine with COVID-19, or to plan an effective way to rearrange movement around the plant to limit human interaction. What’s more, the corona pandemic raises levels of stress and anxiety for everybody. Constantly reeling from the latest unexpected fault only makes things worse, causing “tunnel vision” that leads to poor decision-making.

Reacting to one issue after another is a chaotic approach even at the best of times, and the second – or subsequent – wave of corona hardly qualifies as the best of times. With fewer workers in the plant, one can’t rely on an alert employee to pick up on an error in the control room or respond instantly to equipment failure.

Switching to a proactive plant management strategy is a must, where IoT devices and AI analysis take the place of a human-driven system. This provides advance warning before a piece of equipment fails or production mysteriously drops, giving the luxury of time in which to choose how to respond.

For those who don’t yet have this kind of analytical monitoring solution in place, now is the time to arrange it.

The second wave is coming. Will you sink or swim?

The current series of coronavirus infections and deaths is starting to dwindle, but corona isn’t going away. There’s a second, and probably a third and fourth, wave that’s still to come. A number of process plants were taken by surprise by the sudden impact of COVID-19, but there’s no such excuse for when it returns.

To be ready for the second wave of Covid-19, you need to know your factory thoroughly and possess effective analytical monitoring solutions that deliver early alerts, as well as acting to safeguard employees. Implementing predictive analytics solutions should be as fundamental a part of your second wave planning as providing masks and gloves. They enable full visibility both in-plant and off-site, so you can keep your workers safe at home without losing insight into plant conditions.

No process plant predicted corona, but some were already prepared for any kind of unexpected crisis. With full visibility into plant events, these plants have the flexibility and agility to handle remote monitoring and a sudden reduction in the on-site workforce. It’s not too late to join them.