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The pandemic has affected just about every business in the world, but tech has also geared up to fight back in its own way, as we found out from speakers at Disrupt 2020. But technology has opted to take a back seat to frontline workers and find ways to support them rather than attempt to “solve” the issues at hand.
The founders of tech-forward healthcare startups Color and Carbon Health explained their approach in one panel, emphasizing that the startup mindset is a resilient and adaptable one.
“You’re seeing, I think, the distributed nature of the U.S., where at some point it’s clear that you can’t wait for someone to solve your problem, so people just start jumping in and building the solution themselves,” said Othman Laraki, Color’s CEO.
His company took on the issue of bottlenecks in the COVID-19 testing ecosystem, finding that with a few tweaks Color could contribute a considerable amount.
“We realized that there were several assets that we could bring to bear,” he said. “We decided to build a platform to get around some of the logistical constraints and the supply chain constraints around COVID testing. We did that, got large-scale COVID testing lab online, but also repurposed a lot of our digital platforms for COVID testing … I think we’re doing approximately 75% of all the testing in SF right now.”
Carbon Health CEO Eren Bali noted that companies like theirs are important props at a time when the medical infrastructure of the country buckles under pressure.
“At this point the U.S. doesn’t have the best public health system, but at the same time we have best-in-class private companies who can sometimes operate a lot more efficiently than governments can,” he said. “We also just recently launched a program to help COVID-positive patients get back to health quickly, a rehabilitation program. Because as you know even if you survive it doesn’t mean your body was not affected, there are permanent effects.”
This type of at-home care has become increasingly important, both to take pressure off hospitals and frontline workers and to improve accessibility to resources.
“Sometimes the cost of care is a lesser problem compared to the access,” said Laraki. “Like if you need to drive for an hour and take time out of your day, etc., if you’re an hourly worker. That’s what makes healthcare inaccessible.”
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When COVID-19 spread to the United States, the pandemic exposed two conflicting realities: a healthcare system that excels at high-cost, complex treatments, while failing to provide sufficient access at the local level.
That lack of access to public health infrastructure might be the country’s biggest challenge. It’s also created opportunities for healthcare startups, founders of Carbon Health and Color said Monday during TechCrunch Disrupt 2020, which kicked off today.
“When we think about making healthcare accessible, we tend to focus on the cost of care, which is definitely a big problem,” Othman Laraki, founder and CEO of Color, said during the Disrupt panel “Tech, test and treat: Healthcare startups in the COVID-19 era.”The other big side of making healthcare accessible is actually taking it to people where it’s part of their lives. I think oftentimes for underprivileged communities, etc. that sometimes the cost of care is a lesser problem compared to the access of it.”
Primary care startup Carbon Health and Color are already tackling that issue. And in Carbon Health’s case, the company’s business model to bring high-quality primary care to the local level gave it early insight into the spread of COVID.
Carbon Health has 25 primary care locations today. Co-founder and CEO Eren Bali noted that as early as February, the company started seeing patients coming to its clinics directly from Wuhan, China with COVID-like symptoms.
Carbon Health’s technology platform asks patients questions prior to their visit, which collects important data and assessing patients’ symptoms and problems ahead of time. Those early insights left Carbon Health with two options: shut down and wait for the COVID storm to pass or jump all in. Carbon Health chose the latter, Bali said.
Laraki and Bali’s comments Monday during TechCrunch Disrupt match up with their respective business models and growth trajectory. COVID has merely accelerated that development.
Earlier this week, Carbon Health launched a new pop-up clinic model. These clinics are now open in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. The company is adding more in the coming weeks, including a clinic in Detroit. Ultimately, 100 new COVID-19 testing sites will be added with a collective capacity to handle 100,000 patients per month across the country. Color is collaborating with Carbon Health at its clinics in San Francisco.
Meanwhile, as the pandemic swept into the U.S., Color built a platform to help ease the logistical and supply chain constraints around COVID testing. The company, which runs a large, automated testing lab out in the Bay Area, now processing 75% of the testing in the city.
Today, there are still limits to that hyperlocal level of healthcare. For instance, someone who needs surgery must go to a hospital, which might be hours away.
“It’s not that easy to push that to the edge,” Lariki said, using the surgery example. “But I think what’s happening now — and I think what’s going to happen in the next 10 years — is that we’re going to have really, truly edge-distributed healthcare.”
The idea is that technology will allow healthcare to be taken into communities in a more cost effective model, which will make it more accessible. “That’s something that really hasn’t existed in the U.S. so far and I think it is really starting to happen and it is fundamentally a technology problem,” Lariki added.
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The phrase “every color of the rainbow” isn’t quite as all-encompassing as it sounds. For one thing, the color chips in your hardware store’s paint aisle host some colors you’ll be hard-pressed to point to in a real rainbow. But even on a less hair-splitting level, purple is missing from that rainbow.
The “V” in “ROYGBIV” stands for violet, sure, but that’s not actually the same thing as purple. There is no purple wavelength of light—it requires a mixture of both red and blue wavelengths. That makes it a “nonspectral color”—in fact, it’s the only non spectral color humans see. It requires our brains to interpret signals from both red-sensitive and blue-sensitive cones in our eyes and to see that as a separate color.
But while humans have three types of cones (making us “trichromatic”), many creatures have four, expanding their visible spectrum into ultraviolet (UV) wavelengths. In theory, this means they might be able to see additional nonspectral colors we humans struggle to imagine: UV mixed with either red, yellow, green, or purple. So… do they?
Echoing much of the existing data and research on the subject, SF-based Color released data today showing that based on its own testing program, most individuals who test positive for COVID-19 display either mild or no symptoms, including even running a fever. The results, taken from Color’s own testing of over 30,000 people to date across its California testing stations, shows that despite continuing efforts underway across the U.S. to reopen local and state economies, widespread testing is still key to any true recovery program.
Color notes that 1.3 percent of the people who it has tested to date have received positive results for COVID-19, and says that among those, 78% reported only mild symptoms, or said they were asymptomatic, meaning they displayed no observable symptoms whatsoever. What’s more, only 12% had a fever of over 100 degrees, which is bad news for efforts to contain potential transmission of cases through the reopening through measures like temperature checks at workplaces and shared use facilities.
Color’s data matches up with recently released information from the WHO that indicated as many as 80% of individuals who test positive display either mild or no symptoms. Color also shared more specific information around what symptoms those who did report some said they had, with most saying they had a cough – though the most highly correlated reported symptom with an actual positive test result is loss of smell, making it a much better indicator of a positive test result than fever, for instance.
Other notable findings from Color’s testing to date, which includes testing San Francisco’s frontline essential workers in partnership with the city, include that most of those who test positive are young (68% are aged between 18 and 40) and that Latinx and Black communities showed much higher positive results on a per capita basis than either white or Asian populations. Color’s data in both these regards support results shared by other organizations and researchers, backing up concerns around who will be most negatively affected by any hasty and unconsidered reopening efforts.
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