Finding Hope During the COVID Epidemic

The fight to contain COVID-19 is going to be long, difficult, and painful. As CEO of a healthcare startup where hard work is required even in normal times, I have to remind myself and my colleagues that we need to pace ourselves. I wish we just had to run one marathon.  I think we’ll have to run several. We owe it to ourselves and each other to remain strong, healthy, and focused.

This is not just a matter of working sustainable hours and making sure to exercise and sleep. A positive attitude is also critically important. As someone who lives and breathes health statistics, I find it is easy to get caught up in a bleak picture of impending COVID cases, hospitalizations, ICU admissions, and deaths. It might be easy to succumb to discouragement, but it’s not helpful. We need to find grounds for hope, both to continue to enjoy life and also to maintain our intensity.

We can draw inspiration from the millions of talented, creative professionals who are working around the clock to do what they can to end the COVID epidemic. People with full workloads are volunteering at night and on weekends; competitors are working together; companies are doing everything they can to help while they struggle with challenges to their core businesses.

Here are just a few of the innovative examples that have inspired me and given me optimism that we will get through this.

  • Tracking disease. It is difficult to pinpoint how fast COVID is spreading and what communities are at greatest risk. Kinsa Health manufactures smart thermometers that transmit fever readings back to the company. They have developed a dynamically updated map that shows how patterns of fever radiate across the country. Lately the map has shown improvement.
  • More, faster testing. Numerous organizations are jumping in to provide the testing capacity that has been sorely lacking.  A team of 40 at the Broad Institute has retooled its genetic research operations to provide COVID testing with a capacity of 2,000 tests per day and turnaround time that will soon reach 12 hours. On March 27, Abbott introduced a point of care testing device that should be able to provide positive results in roughly five minutes.
  • Safe, convenient access. COVID tests need to be delivered safely. Engineers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital have built freestanding booths for COVID testing. The booths are constructed of polycarbonate panels with two cutouts for built-in rubber gloves. Located in tents outside of the hospital, the booths protect clinicians as they administer tests to patients while reducing the need for extremely scarce personal protective equipment.
  • Increased ventilator supplies. The United States currently has about 160,000 ventilators, which is woefully short of what will be needed as surges of critically ill patients hit community after community. Nectar has developed a simplified ventilator that will cost about $10,000 with monthly production of 40,000 units projected by June. A group of volunteer programmers and engineers has mobilized to create Project 95, a clearinghouse that links hospitals requiring ventilators (as well masks and isolation gowns). It will take time, but I am hopeful that we will eventually have enough ventilators in place to provide excellent critical care to all who need it.
  • PPE Supplies – Masks. We’re seeing heartbreaking stories about health care workers becoming infected as they treat patients, in part due to a lack of N95 respiration masks. Minnesota-based 3M normally produces 50 million masks a month. In two months, the company doubled its production, with roughly 50,000 workers continuing to show up for their factory jobs. Within a year, production capacity will reach 2 billion.  Until the manufacturing giants reach capacity, smaller operations are stepping in. Kaas industries is a furniture maker in Seattle. Owner Jeff Kass converted his factory into a protective mask manufacturing operation, using materials provided by Providence Health System. In their second day of production they produced 4,000 masks.
  • PPE Supplies – Face Shields. Masks are more effective if they are complemented by plastic visors. Budmen Industries is a small 3-D printing company outside of Syracuse New York, owned by Isaac Budmen and Stephanie O’Keefe. The company, based in Isaac and Stephanie’s basement, has suspended all sales to produce protective polyethylene visors in their basement on March 22nd and is in the process of relocating to a 50,000 square foot facility donated by Greater Syracuse Sound Stage. The visors are sanitized or replaced between uses.  The couple is making their files available to other printers and established a network of companies to produce and distribute them. Their GoFundMe page is here.
  • Teamwork. The energy in the health care analytic community is palpable. Most of the analytics company CEOs I know are determined to do whatever it takes to help our country. Some of the smartest organizations in the world have come together to form the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition to improve the flow of relevant information and bring advanced analytics to bear.  A wide range of organizations are committing resources, including for-profit companies that are normally direct competitors.  Participants include EHR companies (athenahealth, Epic), tech firms (Amazon Web Services, Sales Force, Microsoft) providers (the Mayo Clinic, Intermountain Healthcare) startups (Buoy, nference, Oura), and other organizations.  The coalition aspires, among other goals to connect “the best sources of information from around the world to provide data, analytics and insights to all.”

Every analytics company in health care is asking what they can due to play their part in ending the epidemic. It is therefore important to reflect on what your company can contribute that is unique.

Here at Health Data Analytics Institute (HDAI) we are focused on battling COVID by leaning on our core competence: building analytic platforms and constructing complex predictive models to benefit patients. We currently have four workstreams in process.

  • Drug analysis. Using our full suite of AI risk adjustment models, we are rapidly analyzing the efficacy of numerous drugs in treating influenza infections and respiratory failure over the past 20 years. This could shed light on which compounds might be worth investigating for their effects on COVID.
  • Making risk models available to academic researchers. Over the last several years, we have developed predictive models that can help academics adjust for potential confounding factors in isolating the impact of particular interventions. In essence, our models adjust for the impact of age, sex, geography, and the timing and combination of health problems that individuals have experienced. Working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we are preparing to make these predictors available to academics at no charge.
  • Measuring the effects of disruption to the health care system. As of this writing, physical primary care has come to a near standstill: at-risk patients with chronic disease are experiencing disruptions to care as we pivot to a delivery system that leans much more heavily on virtual access. Cancer screenings are down precipitously. Many COVID-negative patients that would normally require hospital care or the emergency department are staying away while care is being disrupted for those who are admitted. In short, any number of factors could lead to worse medical outcomes for non-COVID patients. HDAI is measuring these impacts to help hospitals and medical groups focus on non-COVID patients at greatest risk.
  • Supporting patients and families. I have had many conversations with middle aged adults anxious about their parents and other family members. These caregivers are trying to get a better grip on their loved ones’ interactions with the healthcare system so they can advocate for them more effectively. We are developing an app that will make it much easier for seniors and their caregivers to access their personal medical histories and understand their risk profiles. Stay tuned for more on this soon.

If you have questions or perspectives on these topics, or if you are an academic interested in accessing our models for your work, we would love to hear from you. Please reach out to my colleague Josh Gray at josh.gray@hda-institute.com.

I don’t know when it will be, but I am confident that with the world’s energy focused as intensely as it is right now, we will turn the corner on this devastating disease.

In the meantime, stay safe, focused, and close to your family.

 

Nassib Chamoun

Founder, President, & CEO