By Tom Still
MADISON, Wis. – Much of the news about the COVID-19 pandemic has been trending somewhere between bad and awful.
Within the last week, the United States recorded daily death counts unseen since May, bringing the total to more than 150,000 people. About half of the 50 states had outbreaks serious enough to warrant more restrictions. In Wisconsin, all but a few of the state’s 72 counties reported a surge in positive cases as the state inched closer to 1,000 deaths.
The state of Illinois put Wisconsin on a COVID-19 travel quarantine list, which tells you even our Midwest neighbors, summer visitors and business associates are getting nervous about us.
There’s a hint of silver in the cloud, however. Wisconsin’s death rate of 16 per 100,000 population remains in the bottom third of the states, a tribute to the work of health professionals, high-quality hospitals and clinics, and public health campaigns urging people to follow simple guidelines.
Another factor may be keeping Wisconsin from growing into a coronavirus hot spot as bright as states to the south and west: Public-private partnership.
Three of the state’s largest health-tech companies began working together almost as soon as the virus emerged in force in Wisconsin, building a testing system that includes producing and supplying the ingredients for tests, assembling kits for conducting those tests, examining the results and then reporting them in ways that help health providers respond.
Epic, Exact Sciences and Promega, three Dane County companies with the expertise, resources and physical space necessary to gear up to the challenge, began working together in mid-March with the help of state health officials, the Wisconsin National Guard and other private companies – some of which are outside the healthcare world.
Parts of the story were told Tuesday during a virtual forum produced by the Wisconsin Technology Council and the Wisconsin Healthcare Business Forum. It reinforced the notion that Wisconsin has benefited from a research, development and production infrastructure not found in every state.
Jake Orville, general manager of pipeline at Exact Sciences, said what started at Exact as a way of testing the company’s own workers quickly moved to “bigger and bolder” action. The company realized it had the space and capacity for high-volume testing, so it ramped up to do so.
“Teams worked long hours,” Orville said. “Tasks that would normally take months took weeks.”
Sara Mann, general manager of the North American branch of Promega, said the companies began by talking daily about ways to expand testing capacity around the state, looking at factors such as testing space and testing collection supplies. Before long, Promega’s ability to produce chemical reagents used for coronavirus testing had expanded dramatically to meet demand in Wisconsin, but also in the worldwide markets the company serves.
“A lot of knowledge sharing happened within the scientific community and within our different companies,” Mann said. “We really came together to problem-solve.”
Verona-based Epic Systems is the source of electronic health records for about six out of 10 Americans who have such digital records, including about nine out of 10 electronic health records in Wisconsin. It was well-positioned to relay results as they were processed.
Epic had been working with Exact Sciences for nearly a year, so the foundation was there to do more. Epic worked with Exact Sciences to implement an interface to COVID-connect, which has expanded testing efforts around the state. The interface was developed with Wisconsin’s emergency operations center and Microsoft.
Mike Pontillo, an Epic implementation executive, said the Alliant Energy Center community testing site in Madison has been able to increase testing by 40 percent, which translates to almost 100 cars per hour, due to the new software.
These three companies aren’t alone in the testing response, of course. According to state data, there are 83 labs performing tests, with a daily capacity of 24,156 tests. Another 24 more labs are planning to test.
With the crisis far from over and the national supply chain working to keep up with demand for nasal swabs, reagents and personal protective equipment, all those labs and more will be needed. The example of the public-private partnership that includes Epic, Exact Sciences and Promega may prove to be an example for others.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.