By Madeline Humphrey and Irene Chung
Some Boston University alumni and current researchers are determined to take action amid the COVID-19 pandemic to reduce the anxieties it brings. With hospitals running out of personal protective equipment and individuals worried about the health of themselves and their loved ones, officials have been creatively making efforts to limit the spread of the virus through databases, applications and websites.
Arianne Kidder graduated from the Questrom School of Business in 2004 and is the head of finance for Buoy Health, a digital health company located in Boston that programmed a virtual assistant to advise people on next steps to take after identifying their symptoms on the website.
Kidder said that Buoy Health, which has been in operation for six years, shifted its focus to helping patients identify symptoms of COVID-19 at the onset of the outbreak.
“[Buoy] leads you through a questionnaire, which is really supposed to be very similar to the conversation that you would have with your doctor,” Kidder said. “It would tell you at the end of that interview, whether you are a high risk or low risk.”
Finley Hines, director of communications at Buoy Health, said an application like this is especially important during the pandemic for the Boston community.
“We feel like we’re giving back to the local area where we grew up as a company,” Hines said. “Working with Americans across the world in this capacity from a symptom checker and triage solution is something we’ve been working on for years, quite frankly. So it’s been a natural process for us to update our [artificial intelligence] to reflect the [COVID-19] situation and the pandemic that we’re all facing.”
The Private Automated Contact Tracing is a team of researchers at BU, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other institutions who are developing an app to help trace people’s contact with the coronavirus.
Ari Trachtenberg, a professor in the College of Engineering at BU, is involved with PACT and the making of this app. He said that it tracks the phone to phone contact with people through anonymously sending out a series of messages that notifies users who were in close contact to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
“The basic idea is that your phone will be regularly sending out short random messages, which we call chirps… and also listening to chirps that it hears,” Trachtenberg said. “If you get sick [and] get a positive test, you can opt to upload all the chirps that you sent to a central registry. Now their app will be checking against the registry and… know that they must have been near you, and therefore they might need to get a test.”
Trachtenberg said privacy is something that the PACT team takes very seriously, and he thinks once released, the app will make an impact.
“It’s not clear how useful this technology will be — it can go anywhere from a little useful to extremely useful and essential,” Trachtenberg said. “We worked very hard to try to make sure that everything is as private as we can make it right now.”
Sarah Vancini, a 2018 graduate of Questrom’s Master of Business Administration program, founded the “Corona Virus Project” in an effort to help frontline workers get the supplies and equipment they need. On the site, hospitals and care facilities post their needs for people in the community to help meet them. Vancini said she was compelled to act because, as a former medical professional, she felt connected to the hospitals and desperate to help them.
“I used to work at a hospital and I loved clinical work… so my heart is still with those people and I wanted to give back,” Vancini said. “I felt almost a sense of shame that I was sitting inside, safely quarantined and people that I love were able to go out and actually help the situation.”
The Corona Virus Project has expanded quickly since late March. Now, more than 40 hospitals and care centers have their needs listed on the site. People seeking to help can email Vacini with what they can donate. She said the benefit of this format is that it gives people a central place to see exactly how they can help and who will accept their goods.
“Anyone in Massachusetts who wants to donate goods has one place to go and investigate what hospitals need,” Vacini said. “It just makes everyone’s life easier who wants to donate, going to one place rather than going all over the Internet.”
Their webpage includes sections for do-it-yourself PPE and a landing page where engineers can discuss how to make prototypes of other protective gears, such as disposable gowns and goggles.
Given the great need for hospital donations and volunteers at this time, Vancini said she was impressed at how effective the project has been so far.
“I’ve been amazed at how everyone has come together and how smooth it’s been for me,” Vancini said. “Because we’re in a crisis right now, people have been moving for each other so much and I’m really grateful.”
One of these volunteers, Yufeng Zheng, an architectural designer at Perkins and Will began donating face shields he designed with his coworker Eric Keune, to the Corona Virus Project. He said the initiative has enabled many individuals to get involved and productively meet hospital’s needs.
“[The database] is extremely important because it’s a good way to engage this effort,” Zheng said. “I think a lot of times, people want to help but they don’t have that initial connection. So, this Corona Virus Project becomes a network for people who want to help and unites everyone together.”
Vancini said she believes that creativity and collaboration is necessary to help meet the demand for supplies and help COVID-19 efforts.
“More than anything, what I believe will help the situation is creativity and individuals coming together from different industries to find creative solutions for PPE and protection, even for cures for the virus,” Vacini said. “My biggest hope is that we continue to find corporate partnerships and find creative ways to address this issue.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred to Buoy as a health consultant. An updated version states that it is a digital health company.