Ask an expert: Mike Zorich on COVID-19

Mike Zorich of IMEG Corp. provides insights on how his company is working on health care projects

By Mike Zorich May 6, 2020

How has your staff/team adjusted to the new work-from-home environment? What tips or suggestions do you have to help other firms remain connected while working remotely?

Mike Zorich: Our remote work systems enabled our firm to act quickly and we have been extremely successful in our ability to manage and maintain business operations despite the impacts of COVID-19. Currently about half of our firm’s 1,500 employees are working from home, with full access to workplace network, systems and tools.

Our biggest change is in methods for procurement, where the interview process has become remote instead of in-person. This changes the dynamics of the interviews. Review meetings for projects are also being conducted remotely, with each stakeholder in a different location — many at their homes.

What financial implications do you think this will have on the engineering industry as a whole?

Mike Zorich: Long-term financial implications are uncertain, but the COVID-19 crisis likely will change how we do business moving forward, particularly in regard to working remotely. Once the pandemic subsides, the advantages and challenges of the remote workspace will need to be reviewed. The traditional office environment may be altered for many firms and the amount of office space for housing staff may change significantly.

Do you expect to see pent-up demand hit once shelter-in-place restrictions have been lifted? How do you think business will trend three to six months after?

Mike Zorich: We expect that each market will be impacted differently in the near and long terms. We anticipate an increase in health care renovation and system upgrade work; some health care systems, however, have placed a pause on major design projects as they redirect resources to urgent facility needs.

The corporate and commercial building markets are likely to see a slowdown due to declines in consumer spending and the aviation market will be impacted by tenant build-outs and terminal upgrades being put on hold. We have not had any government sector project contracts canceled, but we are seeing procurement postings slowing down or halted as resources are being pooled to address COVID-19 needs in each state.

Have building owners or clients approached you to assist with changes or updates to their building to help protect against COVID-19? What services can you offer?

Mike Zorich: Our clients are looking at us as an extension of their internal operations, in some cases providing us with an open-ended contract with no clear scope of services. The goal is to respond quickly to any issues they are experiencing with their critical operations and provide immediate solutions.

Our involvement with the pandemic started several weeks ago as we began preparing health care clients for the anticipated patient surge at their inpatient hospitals. This included evaluating existing HVAC system capacities in patient care areas, providing solutions for additional airborne infection isolation spaces and modifying operating rooms to safely serve an infected patient.

As the projections continued to increase, we started to work with our clients to develop alternate care sites for a larger-scale patient surge. We assisted by designing multiple triage surge tents and modifications of warehouses for alternate care sites.

What test-and-balance or air balancing challenges have you encountered? What unique challenges are you solving?

Mike Zorich: For the initial projected patient surge at hospitals we worked with clients to modify individual patient rooms into airborne infection isolation rooms with portable HEPA filters and temporary ante rooms. As the projected number of COVID-19 patients increased and the availability of portable HEPA filters decreased, we started to work with our health care clients to develop negative-pressure “patient wards” in their patient bed floors and PACU.

The patient ward concept involved adding a single negative-pressure HEPA filter unit and ante room to allow for containment measures to protect an entire patient wing. This provided a larger quantity of containment rooms, simplified staff operations and reduced the quantity of central air handling systems that needed rebalancing.

For hospitals and health care facilities, do you anticipate further demand for specialty or pressurized environments?

Mike Zorich: We anticipate new regulatory requirements will influence how we plan and design health care facilities in the future. Some of these requirements will likely impact the minimum number of airborne infection isolation rooms or other AII-adaptable spaces. There will be the temptation by some to build for worst-case scenarios, but before defaulting to this solution we recommend comprehensive risk analysis be completed by all stakeholders in the health care organization. We believe flexible designs that allow health care facilities the ability to easily adapt their HVAC systems will be a driving force for future design.

From an engineering standpoint, what other markets or building sectors do you anticipate will grow due to the changes occurring due to the coronavirus? Is there a new engineering sector you plan to focus on to meet these needs?

Mike Zorich: Health care institutions who receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement are familiar with the CMS Emergency Preparedness Rule. The rule requires health care institutions develop policies, procedures and training to ensure adequate emergency planning is done to address natural and man-made disasters. We anticipate there will be many lessons learned from the pandemic to enhance the CMS Emergency Preparedness Rule, but we believe other market sectors will develop their own, more comprehensive emergency preparedness plans. We anticipate these plans will focus on disaster preparedness, occupant safety, business continuity, indoor air quality, building infrastructure and more.

What might other engineers/building professionals need to know when tackling COVID-19 projects?

Mike Zorich: For our projects that are specific to the current COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to keep things simple so that they can be executed quickly. These projects are oftentimes competing with other projects for materials and resources that may not be available. Providing a solution that is simple and flexible is critical in this time of crisis.

Author Bio: Mike Zorich is a principal and serves as IMEG’s national director of health care. He is a licensed mechanical engineer with more than 15 years of experience. Zorich previously served as the health care client executive for IMEG’s Quad Cities office and has extensive experience in the design of all types of health care facilities and specialized departments.