Lancaster firm pitches high-tech approach to tracking Covid-19 risk

Contact tracing is turning into a mess rather than an effective tool to stop Covid-19. People aren’t cooperating, contact tracers are becoming overwhelmed and the virus continues to spread at a record rate.

“It’s almost like we’re at a dead end with that approach,” said Victor Owuor, chief product officer at Lancaster-based investment firm Aspire Ventures.

The tech-focused firm believes it has a better alternative: crowd tracing. It involves applying a proprietary algorithm, artificial intelligence and machine learning to determine the risk of catching Covid-19 in any given group of people, whether at a restaurant, supermarket or private party.

The company is working with Amazon Web Services, a division of retail giant Amazon, to share the data with researchers through what is called the AWS Covid-19 data lake. Aspire data, for example, can help epidemiologists in their own studies of disease-transmission risks, Owuor said. The researchers also can suggest tweaks to Clio’s data collection, he added.

GO Pass is a free Covid-19 screening tool that venues and their guests can use to gauge and reduce the risks of Covid-19 transmission. (IMAGES/SUBMITTED)

The risk calculations hinge, in part, on use of an app, called GO Pass, rolled out in September by Aspire subsidiary Clio Health. It’s a free Covid-19 screening tool that restaurants, schools, businesses and other venues can ask people to use before granting them access, kind of like an airline boarding pass. Once people are screened, they get a digital ticket that they have to show at the door within a certain time frame before being allowed in. User privacy is protected.

At the same time, people can use GO Pass like they would the review app Yelp. But instead of commenting on the food or service, they rate venues based on how they enforce things like mask-wearing and social-distancing.

Venues, in turn, can rate customers on their propensity for wearing masks, said Essam Abadir, managing partner at Aspire Ventures. It is similar to how Uber drivers can rate their passengers. In fact, passengers now must verify they are wearing masks when they order a ride and Uber drivers can report when they don’t.

Other venues using GO Pass could incorporate customer ratings into their screening, Abadir said. “The restaurant you are going to, without knowing your name, could just have a policy to deny passes to people who are rated low on mask wearing.”

The boarding system is used at tens of thousands of places, said Owuor. They include medical offices that are customers of MedStatix, a sister company of Clio Health that offers patient-experience surveys. 

The data — collected anonymously — allows Aspire to calculate the risk of an individual catching Covid-19 and the risk of transmission in a given setting, said Owuor. The more people and places using the app, the more precise the calculation. But the app does not need to be universally adopted to work, Owuor said.

“There’s a happy medium where we’re still effective based on statistical sampling,” he said.

In Lancaster County, GO Pass is being used to screen employees at Shank’s Extract, an ingredients manufacturer in East Hempfield Township, and students at Stone Independent School in Lancaster, where two Aspire employees send their children. 

At the beginning of the academic year, the private school divided its roughly 100 students into three groups and kept them separated, said Mike Simpson, Stone’s head of school. Known as a hybrid model, the approach is designed to minimize the risks of transmitting Covid-19.

“What GO Pass has allowed us to do is have a really clear sense of basically the health of our specific cohorts and whether or not there’s any one specific group of students who are experiencing more symptoms or more contact points than the others,” Simpson said.

While attention lately has been on vaccines, they will not be available in sufficient quantities to immunize all Americans until summer or fall 2021. Pfizer applied this month for emergency approval of its vaccine, which is 95% effective. But only 50 million doses will be available in December, with health care workers and vulnerable populations at the head of the line. Another vaccine maker,  Moderna, may have another 20 million doses by the end of this year

In the meantime, people will still need to take precautions, according to public-health officials. Pennsylvania has recorded more than 300,000 cases of Covid-19, with daily new cases in November far surpassing the numbers in March and April. State officials are now warning hospitals may run out of intensive care beds by December.

“We understand the virus is not going away any time soon, which means we have to get smarter about the information available to us through technology,” Abadir said.

— By Joel Berg, editor of BizNewsPA

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