Public health departments have for decades been running contact tracing programs to reduce the spread of communicable diseases and other threats, stepping in to mitigate the impact of everything from unsafe restaurant food to unprotected sex to tainted tattoo needles.
But amid the widespread and deadly COVID-19 pandemic, contact tracing has taken on a new sense of urgency. In the US, the novel coronavirus has spread to all 50 states, and deaths climbed above 125,000 in late June 2020. Meanwhile, the introduction of an effective vaccine is still some way down the road.
As a result, overwhelmed state and local health officials across the US are turning to private companies such as HealthSpace Data Systems (CSE:HS) to help devise solutions.
HealthSpace, an established Software as a Service (SaaS) company currently serving more than 500 public health departments across North America, responded to the challenge by extending its HSCloud Suite and My Health Department products to create a fully automated digital contact tracing platform for COVID-19.
Several US public health departments have deployed the British Columbia–based company’s platform, including the State of Hawaii and several counties in Washington State, Illinois, Michigan and North Carolina. The automated platform can be up and running within 48 hours, although most departments usually complete their initial setup over the course of two weeks.
“Our platform not only has the ability to be deployed rapidly, it fits perfectly with the normal course of work public health departments are already doing,” explains Chief Executive Officer Silas Garrison. “We believe that as numerous people begin to be employed to bolster contact tracing efforts, our platform will be a proven benefit to accentuate the human effort with an automated solution.”
Over the years, health departments have typically had in-house staffers or contractors retrace the steps of people who tested positive for diseases and record anyone who had contact with them. The trackers then embarked on the painstaking process of cold-calling each contact to ask a series of questions and determine if they had experienced symptoms, while also encouraging them to avoid infecting others.
However, ramping up operations to handle the scope and breadth of COVID-19 tracing is a daunting task for most cash-strapped state and local governments. It means hiring hundreds, if not thousands, of tracers to work in large call centres. It also means training the contact tracers through online programs or sometimes weeks of in-person instruction.
Even with the best training, there’s a huge hurdle to overcome, as contact tracing is only effective if the contactee is willing to pick up the telephone and converse with the caller. The pick-up rate for unfamiliar or unidentified numbers in today’s society is very low. And the people who do answer are often guarded and uncooperative, if not downright abusive.
The logistics of launching a contact tracing program, hiring and training tracers, renting office space, and maintaining it for months can be costly, and far beyond the reach for some jurisdictions facing plummeting tax revenues as a result of the pandemic.
For HealthSpace, given the company’s years of work providing hundreds of state and local governments with its powerful self-serve enterprise cloud and mobile platform to manage their operations, stepping up to help both clients and non-clients in need during an unprecedented public health crisis seemed like a natural fit.
Garrison says it was during an initial general outreach to its customers about COVID-19 that HealthSpace first learned of the growing need at public health departments to find ways for a rapid scaling up of existing contact tracing operations, assuming the departments even had such operations to begin with.
He says HealthSpace’s automated contact tracing platform is simply a “modified version” of its foodborne-illness-tracking service, which has been in use for years. That is why the company was able to deploy the platform quickly, with minimal need for additional capital or other resources.
“It took very little technical effort to get this up. And immediately we turned it on and we started to spread the word out to our customers,” says Garrison. “We had several early adopters, literally within 24 hours, and it didn’t take too long for the word to spread.”
The platform, which was rolled out in April, connects with individuals daily by sending a unique and secure link via text message or e-mail. The link leads to a questionnaire that the recipient fills out by entering symptoms, temperature, places visited and people they have been in direct contact with.
These latter people are sent questionnaires each day, too. If anyone exhibits symptoms, health officials know immediately, issue quarantine directives and arrange for testing or treatment.
Information is securely stored inside the company’s cloud-based platform. Public health departments can access the encrypted data – which they own – for detailed real-time reporting and analysis. In addition, the data can be securely sent to healthcare providers, a service the company has always provided to its customers as part of its My Health Department product.
Garrison notes that HealthSpace’s automated platform isn’t meant to supplant human tracers. “They still need teams of people to manage this information, because you might have all the information oriented digitally. It still takes more specialized knowledge and skill to look over that information and determine who they need to make a more proactive outreach to.”
In order to get established clients, as well as new ones, to adopt the contact tracing platform, the company is providing a version for free, for 90 days in most cases. Also, waiving upfront fees acknowledges that many local and state governments don’t have the funds to purchase the platform right now.
“They are getting the benefit of the platform today for a situation that is dire and are able utilize it while they’re waiting on getting their funds in place,” Garrison explains.
“What this has done has actually worked to our benefit. They are now references and have been spokespersons for us in several key areas that will translate to sales. So, it actually works as a very powerful, tip-of-the-spear sales tool, because they are able to get it for free, get it into people’s hands and appreciate its power and value. And now they’re talking to other potential customers about it, which could directly translate into exponential sales growth for us.”
Organizations deciding to use the platform for the long term will pay $200 to $300 per month for each user – a nurse or epidemiologist, for example. A client requiring 10 user accounts could thus generate up to $36,000 in annual revenue.
The approach appears to be working, as HealthSpace announced its first contract incorporating contact tracing for COVID-19 in mid-June. The agreement will see Mecklenburg County Health Department in North Carolina use HSCloud Suite for contact tracing and managing its Onsite Program for five years. The work with Mecklenburg County will generate revenue of US$157,800 for HealthSpace.
The company shared news that same month that counties in Ohio, Arizona and Illinois have started using the platform as well, with HealthSpace providing it on a gratis basis for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Looking ahead to the rest of 2020 and beyond, Garrison says public health departments can pivot the automated tracing platform to tackle other epidemiological outbreaks once the COVID-19 crisis is under control. For example, the company is in talks about using it to track people living with HIV.
“The platform is so flexible and powerful that it extends well beyond the COVID-19 situation,” Garrison says. “This is a sustainable path forward for a new business model within our existing platform.”
This story was featured in the Public Entrepreneur magazine.
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