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Local leaders put technology to work to tackle a ‘Cat 5’ public health issue

Margie Manning



Jabil is using Microsoft's HoloLens technology to set up production lines. (Photo credit: Microsoft)

Geo-fencing, telehealth, thermal imaging and mixed reality are among the technologies in play as the Tampa-St. Petersburg area works to reopen in the Covid-19 crisis.

“Everyone knows about hurricanes. If we could see a Cat 5 hurricane coming towards us and if we had the power to turn that Cat 5 hurricane into a Cat 1 hurricane, you can bet that everyone would do their best to do that. It’s harder when you are dealing with a virus you can’t see, but the challenge is the same. Individually and as businesses and government, we have tried and need to continue to try to do everything we can to reduce this from a Cat 5 public health problem down to one that is manageable,” said Mike Merrill, Hillsborough County administrator.

Jeremy Wilson

Merrill was among the panelists at Tampa Bay Tech’s virtual poweredUP, an online discussion about navigating the new normal.

A recent survey of 1,600 technology professionals by Hays, a global recruiting firm with an office in Tampa, found that 60 percent are not comfortable or are unsure about how comfortable they would be to return to the physical office, said Jeremy Wilson, executive vice president of services at Vology and moderator of the poweredUP panel discussion. Sixty-one percent of those surveyed believe that remote working options will have to become part of the norm, Wilson said.

“I absolutely think we will see more work from home,” said Jean Kneisler, vice president and chief information officer at Jabil Healthcare. St. Petersburg-based Jabil (NYSE: JBL), a manufacturing solutions provider, expanded its virtual private network capabilities and has been working with online collaboration tools such as Office 365 and Microsoft Teams.

Jean Kneisler

The company also is using Microsoft HoloLens, a mixed reality technology, to accomplish tasks that previously required travel and an in-person presence.

“When we’re setting up production lines, the engineers usually are in one location and the production line is in another location. Usually the engineers would fly down and help set up those lines and teach people how to do it. We can’t do that now,” Kneisler said. “So [we are] using the HaloLens to assist somebody in setting up a line or setting up servers, because you can actually annotate inside the HoloLens and create an arrow and put that arrow where you want somebody to do something. It’s pretty phenomenal, and we’re going to do a lot more investigating and probably have a center of excellence around just this technology.”

Tampa Genera Hospital has seen a big uptick in physicians using telehealth technologies, initially for primary care and more frequently for specialty care, such as for transplant patients who could be at higher risk of infection, said Brian Hammond, the hospital’s chief technology officer.

Brian Hammond

The hospital is using thermal temperature scanning technology at some of its low-traffic offices and family care centers to ensure no one coming into the facility has a fever, one symptom of Covid-19. Individuals walk up to a stand and the technology gives a temperature readout in three or four seconds.

The hospital is considering “industrial-strength” mass screenings, that use thermal imaging to scan a crowd of 30 or 40 people at one time, Hammonds said.

“I think these are things you are going to see, kind of like after 9/11, what happened with airport security and how that all changed. I think this will be pervasive throughout any place that has a large number of people going through, at sporting events, in mall entrances. We’re looking at those in the main entrances of the hospital.”

Tampa General Hospital also is working with University of South Florida on a geo-fencing and contagion tracking system that tracks mobile devices and uses cell phone data to create maps of human movement. A lot of movement in an area could indicate a potential increase in Covid-19 cases and allow hospitals to prepare for that increase, Hammonds said.

Mike Merrill, Hillsborough County administrator

It’s not just the movement that’s the problem, said Merrill. It’s movement without people taking precautions.

“How things go depends on how people behave. The geo-fencing model could at some point show a lot of movement … but actually hospitalizations and positive cases going down, which tells us that people are taking greater precautions. That’s the power of it,” Merrill said. “If over the next 30, 60 days,  there’s more circulation and greater positives and greater hospitalizations, the governor’s order says local communities can be more restrictive …  If we in our community see a spike and have the data to prove it and know where it’s coming from, we can take more restrictive action to dial back where we need to dial back, but rather than at a wholesale level, we can target it to areas where we are seeing the spike.”

Everyone wants to get back to normal at business and in their day-to-day lives, but there still are enormous risks, Merrill said.

“It’s really important that we not give up this great advantage we’ve created for ourselves of having low positive cases and relatively low death rates,” he said.

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