KC business leaders, companies lead effort to do widespread Covid-19 contact tracing

The group of area executives who teamed up to boost the area’s testing for Covid-19 searched the world for a solution to the next step needed to reopen Kansas City — contact tracing — and found the expertise they sought across town.

The C19KC Task Force has worked to support the development of a new smartphone app called COVID Safe Paths that can help users receive warnings if they’ve been exposed to coronavirus. Beyond providing a way for individuals to assess their exposure while maintaining their privacy, the technology can help public health officials in their efforts to head off major outbreaks.

Andy Deister, a founder of the C19KC Task Force and CEO of Russell Stover Chocolates, said talent from throughout the metro area is working on a campaign to promote use of the app while also working with area public health officials to adopt the technology. It’s part of a larger effort, called Comeback KC, aimed at helping the area face the Covid-19 challenge and emerge stronger than peer communities, he said.

C19KC was formed by four friends — Deister, NorthPoint Development CEO Nathaniel Hagedorn, MTAR CEO Taimoor Nana and US Engineering Company Holdings CEO Tyler Nottberg — who wanted to advance the area’s response to the pandemic. While they had no experience with public health, Deister said the group wanted to contribute the business community’s expertise in logistics, purchasing, supply chain and negotiations.

Hagedorn headed an effort that found 50,000 Covid-19 test kits and a donor in Tradebot Systems Inc. CEO Dave Cummings, and brought the kits and two machines used to process them to Kansas City. The group and a growing list of volunteers helped produce or buy personal protection equipment for local and regional health care providers.

Deister took up the challenge of finding an effective way for tracing contacts of those who are infected. This allows people to reduce their risks of infection while also allowing officials to track those who might have been near someone with Covid-19, the disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus, and direct them in being tested and self-quarantining.

Deister’s search put him in touch with software developers as far away as Korea and the United Kingdom. Then he found out about a group from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who had been working with Mayo Clinic officials on ways to do contact tracing while maintaining users’ privacy. In talking with MIT officials, Deister was directed to a software developer — from Kansas City.

Steve Penrod, vice president of product development for TripleBlind Inc., said he received a call from Deister in mid-March. The call came around 9 p.m. on a Sunday, Penrod said, and they spoke for a couple of hours.

Penrod said his colleagues at TripleBlind let him pull away from the Kansas City startup to work on the Safe Paths app, often for up to 18 hours a day.

“This was the most important thing I could think of working on,” he said.

The technology addresses the privacy issue by seeing that a user’s personal information never leaves their device and remains encrypted at all times. Public health officials can access bulk encrypted data. Penrod said TripleBlind was working on the technology for a range of uses — but had no way of foreseeing its potential in fighting a pandemic.

He said the app, offered by nonprofit Path Check Inc., runs on a user’s phone and sends an alert if that person has been in a location where a person confirmed to have Covid-19 has been. The user then can avoid contact with others or seek testing.

For health officials, it moves contact tracing from a paper-and-pencil job to help alert family, friends and co-workers of people who are Covid-19 positive. It also lets health officials broadcast warnings of possible outbreaks, thus alerting even those not using the app.

Aaron Deacon, managing director of KC Digital Drive Inc., said his organization got involved in acting as a bridge to area public health officials and elected officials. KC Digital Drive was formed years ago after Google Fiber announced Kansas City as the first market to test a high-speed internet service.

While area health departments have had different systems for tracking epidemics, Deacon said area governments have had experience working together through the Mid-America Regional Council.

While Deacon works with local officials, Deister said other local talent is putting together a campaign to sell the public on using the Safe Paths app. He said VMLY&R developed a website for the effort and Mark Logan, founder of Idealect, has helped direct the campaign.

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