Apr 30 2021

The Technology Behind States’ COVID-19 Tracking and Vaccination Rollouts

Cloud tools, artificial intelligence and specialized hardware have enabled states to respond to the pandemic, aid citizens and support vaccine distribution.

At the Virginia Department of Health, technology has come to the fore in the effort to organize distribution of millions of doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“With preregistration, we realized we had 35 different districts adding to the wait list, and that became difficult to manage with each district collecting its own information,” says CIO Suresh Soundararajan. “The governor had no visibility into who was registering or what was happening with that wait list.”

Like other state IT leaders, Soundararajan recognized vaccine rollout as a massive data management challenge. He leveraged the Google Cloud Platform along with other tech-centric fixes to meet that urgent need.

Virginia is not alone. Around the nation, state IT leaders have turned to technology modernization and automation as key supports in their efforts to meet the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. From vaccine trackers to contact tracing apps and vaccine finder tools, technology serves as the backbone for much of the vaccine distribution infrastructure.

“This is where the low-code and no-code platforms have come into play, helping states and cities to build systems very quickly, whether it’s the front side of resident interactions or the back end, managing the appointments and the information,” says Brad Duncan, U.S. state, local and education leader for the government and public sector for multinational professional services network EY.

“We’ve also seen a lot happening on the cloud enabled platforms, with the chatbots and the virtual agents, as well as a big push on the data analytics side,” he says.

Taken together, these varied tools have helped state IT officials meet the challenges around scale and speed inherent in the vaccine rollout effort.

Vaccine Finder Technology Leverages Cloud Tools

In North Carolina, the pandemic highlighted the need for modernized tools in support of public health.

“COVID has really helped to bring to the forefront the importance and the need for these technology platforms to help enable our response,” says Corey Mercy, deputy CTO in the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

“With Google, we stood up a vaccine recipient eligibility web app to make it easy for citizens to figure out what group they were in for vaccine eligibility,” he says.

Users who were eligible were directed to a locator app to help them find nearby places offering vaccine doses. That app leveraged Google’s GIS capabilities.

“You see kind of a Google Maps picture on the page, with a list of all the locations that are providing vaccines. It had the same look and feel that people are comfortable with,” Mercy says.

Corey Mercy, Deputy CTO, North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services
COVID has really helped to bring to the forefront the importance and the need for these technology platforms to help enable our response/”

Corey Mercy Deputy CTO, North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services

In addition, the state stood up a vaccine scheduling solution, incorporating a scheduling tool into its COVID-19 vaccine management system, which runs on the Salesforce platform.

Officials in Virginia took a similar approach, tapping Google’s data analytics capabilities to help sort through the logistical complexities of vaccine distribution.

“We saw some places where there was very high demand for the vaccine, and we needed a way to manage the vaccine distribution better,” Soundararajan says. “We needed data analytics to understand where we needed to distribute the vaccine at a time when the supply was not great.”

Their solution leveraged the Google Cloud Platform as a centralized operating space. It uses several different elements of the platform, including data analytics and reporting tools, along with Google Cloud’s managed data warehouse integration, Soundararajan says, as well as advanced capabilities around geospatial processing.

MORE FROM STATETECH: How is the pandemic reshaping government technology plans?

“A cloud app engine is used to deploy the tool on the web, and then there are capabilities within Google that do things like manage data storage, user authentication and workflow management,” he says.

In practical terms, all this helped the state to prioritize vaccines at a time of limited supply.

“People give their occupation, basic demographics and answers to other questions to determine their priority groups. Our local health districts can then prioritize based on that,” Soundararajan says. “Google has very strong analytics, and they had already done this for a few states. They had done it for North Carolina and Oregon and couple of other states, and they said they could do it for us at the magnitude and the scale that we needed.”

Q&A: Learn how Washington, D.C., CTO Lindsey Parker marshalled resources to respond to the pandemic.

COVID-19 Screening Technology Uses AI

Data management is just one piece of the technology puzzle when it comes to pandemic management. Another key element is how artificial intelligence has been used to help citizens navigate complicated questions around the pandemic.

For example, Microsoft Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Rhew and his colleagues say AI-based chatbots have helped citizens get access to vital information.

“Early in the pandemic, we observed how AI-based chatbot technology could deliver personalized responses for individuals seeking answers to their questions about COVID-19,” they note in a recent company blog post. “This enabled streamlined screening and triage for large populations, which increased the availability of healthcare professionals and other resources to focus on the delivery of care.”

Google likewise has a virtual agent in play in support of states’ vaccine efforts, and the company is looking to expand upon that effort.

“This newest virtual agent is more accessible,” says Todd Schroeder, Google’s director of public sector digital strategy. “You have folks that are not inclined to use mobile devices. Maybe you have folks that do not have internet access, or non-English-speaking citizens.”

Google Virtual agent

Google’sC OVID-19 virtual agent now supports 28 languages and dialects. Source: Google

With the newer version, he says, “we can deploy across multiple channels, meeting citizens where they are.”

Some people prefer to call a phone number, and others want to use a state website or mobile application. Google is supporting multiple options. “We’re also supporting a multitude of languages on the same platform,” Schroeder says. “The newest version supports 28 languages and dialects.”

In Virginia, communications technologies have been crucial to the pandemic response, driving outreach as vaccines have become more readily available.

To ensure smooth distribution of the shots, “we needed to have more people on the wait list, so that message needed to go out,” Soundararajan says. “We created a landing page to have a one-stop shop for people to register. Then we stood up a massive call center to run in parallel with that.”

Whether by call center or chatbot, that outreach is a key component of a successful public health effort. “There needs to be a constant flow of information,” he says. “If people register and they don’t hear anything, they get worried. We needed to let them know that we had them in the system, and we needed to manage their expectations.”

Data Management Technology Enables COVID-19 Response

At the same time, the data management effort was central to the overall pandemic effort. In the early days of the pandemic, systems needed to account for everything from ventilators to hospital beds.

Later, as the vaccine distribution effort ramped up, states were tasked to track myriad data points: Who needed a shot, who’d already had one, how many were available and where they needed to go.

Cheryl Rodenfels, CTO of Americas Healthcare at cloud solutions provider Nutanix, has worked with the Parkland Health and Hospital System to help the Dallas County health department in Texas leverage data to help combat the pandemic.

Pre-pandemic, Dallas County was already combining ZIP code data with healthcare information to target its breast cancer efforts. The same data infrastructure allowed the county to track things like ventilators and ICU beds. “Since they had the basics in place, when COVID came along, they did not reinvent the wheel,” Rodenfels says.

“A lot of hospitals and government organizations have great data, but they never put it together appropriately,” she adds. “For those who already had a robust program in place, this was an easy shift for them.”

While data has been the focus for many, there’s a hardware component that is also worth noting. “The hardware helps collect that data and then make that data readily available to the right people in the field,” says Michael Sparks, Zebra Technologies’ director of government sales.

For example, he says, there are a variety of sophisticated barcode scanners, printers and handheld computers that allow health workers to scan a driver’s license or an ID card, then feed that data back to the data management system. Printers then produce a barcode that can be put on a vaccine card.

“We can scan that information and confirm somebody’s appointment,” he says. “Or they can fill out their questionnaires and medical paperwork online, and then simply print a QR code so that the site administrators or the healthcare providers can simply scan that QR code instead of having to shuffle papers left and right.”

While specialized hardware may not have been top of mind in the early days of the vaccine rollout, it has proven a key element in supporting successful state efforts.

“Not every worker’s phone battery is going to last eight hours while they’re out in the field with no power to recharge it. That phone camera may not be able to decode a QR code that has been smudged a little bit,” Sparks says. “This work requires something that’s designed to be mobile, that’s designed to work in harsher elements.”

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