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How technology helped Houston fight against the pandemic

Here's what Houston tech is making a difference locally amid the pandemic. Photo via Getty Images

The entire world came to a standstill when the COVID-19 pandemic came knocking at the door, and Houston was no different than the rest. Businesses got shut down, people were losing jobs left and right, the medical infrastructure was wheezing from the huge patient-influx, and whatnot.

However, the Space City managed to weather the storm thanks to its firm resolve and technological interventions from Houston-based businesses and several other players. But that doesn't mean we are out of the woods yet.

The silver lining, however, is that we now know the threat can be mitigated with the help of technologies at our disposal. In this article, we'll discuss how technology has facilitated the fight against the pandemic. Some of the local businesses from Houston also had a significant role to play in providing an arsenal for this war, and we'll be discussing their contribution as well. So let's get started:

Remote healthcare assistance with smart data collection and management

The biggest challenge at the beginning of the pandemic was to provide proper care to those exposed to the virus without putting the lives of frontline workers in danger. On top of that, hospitals also had to make sure that patients suffering from other illnesses do not come into contact with the virus.

With the number of patients rising exponentially, the medical infrastructure could've never been able to cope up if it were not for telemedicine. It's a combination of remote and data technologies that allow healthcare workers to assist and treat patients without going in their physical proximity.

Houston's Medical Informatics Corp. did some exceptional work in making remote healthcare a feasible option for medical institutions. Their solution aims at collecting accurate and comprehensive data that'll further allow physicians to provide better care to the patients. While the luxury of social distancing is among the most significant benefits of this solution, there are several other benefits in the long run.

Since MIC's solution focuses on collecting quality data from all the possible data points, the information can also help identify any significant trends in how the virus is affecting the patients. Artificial intelligence and machine learning seem like the perfect allies to bolster MIC's solution further.

The tech also allows for patients to get quality consultation from experts located in other geographical locations. Hospitals can also leverage such an infrastructure to scale up and down with ease by quickly bringing in more remote caregivers in case of a spike in patients' numbers.

Telemedicine has been brilliant in helping the world deal with the coronavirus pandemic and paved the way for a revamped healthcare infrastructure in the future. The one in which affordable healthcare is a norm and physical distances are not an issue anymore.

Drones and robots for sanitization and upkeep

Once the lockdown restrictions were slowly uplifted, businesses needed to be more cautious about sanitizing the facilities and ensure there was no reason forcing them to close the shop again. The challenge turned out to be bigger for larger facilities as they can't simply deploy a large workforce to take care of it. It would be impossible to follow social distancing norms under such circumstances.

Many stadiums in Houston concluded that employing drones for the job is the way to go, and they couldn't have been more correct. Texas Medical Technology used 'SaniDrones' to spray disinfectants over large facilities and equipment. These drones are pretty much like what is used for agricultural fields and carry large amounts of spraying material at a time to get the job done.

The company also has an army of various other robots that can help businesses abide by pandemic norms. They have one that automatically puts protective coverings on the visitor's shoes to help prevent outside elements from entering the facility. Then they also have a robot that can take orders from customers in restaurants. It can show them 3-D menus and expertly ask customers what they'd like to order. They also offer SaniGate, which disinfect visitors before entering the premises, thus curbing the spread of the virus.

Airobotics is another Houston-based company coming up with technologically advanced solutions for businesses to deal with the pandemic. They provide drones to industrial players, such as oil and gas companies, to monitor and inspect the facility. The drones collect information critical to such plants' smooth functioning and prevent the analysts from going around and touching surfaces on the plant.

The pandemic made us realize that we can't always rely on human workers to care for the fieldwork. Drones and robots provide a suitable alternative to such jobs, and as these solutions get more commonplace, we can also expect them to get more affordable.

Bringing the economy back to life by keeping the virus out of the ecosystem

The economic slowdown brought by the coronavirus is unlike what most of us could even comprehend. With small businesses taking the biggest hit and a good fraction of them shutting down forever, it's necessary for the remaining ones free from the clutches of the pandemic.

And one of the better ways to do that is by minimizing the virus's spread at places where people frequent the most. One of the primary reasons for the coronavirus to be so transmissible is because of how it can travel through seemingly healthy carriers. It might cause a mild fever in some, but that usually doesn't keep people from getting out.

DataVox, a Houston based tech company, provides thermal scanners to make sure possibly infected humans stay away from the virus. The thermal scanners provided by them only check for the temperature and don't affect the privacy of those being scanned. It's a seemingly simple but effective way to deal with such a dangerous element.

Another positive news in this context is that researchers at the University of Houston have designed an air filter capable of filtering out the coronavirus to a great deal of effectiveness. Once commercially available, this can be installed in closed facilities and ensure the virus doesn't enter even through the vents.

There is no doubt that leveraging technology is the way to go forward despite how the situation unfolds. Houston is now implementing smart city solutions with the same thing in mind, and we should also be following their lead.

With a workforce of skilled software developers in Houston, and the city's rich background in technology, the adoption of tech measures should not turn out to be a tough deal. And Houston-based firms coming up with advanced solutions is only a good sign for the city.

Let's hope we'll be seeing more of these in the future, and more Houston businesses will help the city and the world fight this pandemic.

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Colin Simpson is project manager at BlueKite Apps, which recently started its software development services in Houston.

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Building Houston

 
 

From a low-cost vaccine to an app that can help reduce exposure, here are the latest COVID-focused and Houston-based research projects. Photo via Getty Images

While it might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has settled down for the time being, there's plenty of innovative research ongoing to create solutions for affordable vaccines and tech-enabled protection against the spread of the virus.

Some of that research is happening right here in Houston. Here are two innovative projects in the works at local institutions.

UH researcher designs app to monitor best times to shop

A UH professor is putting safe shopping at your fingertips. Photo via UH.edu

When is the best time to run an errand in the pandemic era we currently reside? There might be an app for that. Albert Cheng, professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is working on a real-time COVID-19 infection risk assessment and mitigation system. He presented his plans at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference HPC for Urgent Decision Making and will publish the work in IEEE Xplore.

Cheng's work analyzes up-to-date data from multiple open sources to see when is the best time to avoid crowds and accomplish activities outside the home.

"Preliminary work has been performed to determine the usability of a number of COVID-19 data websites and other websites such as grocery stores and restaurants' popular times and traffic," Cheng says in a UH release. "Other data, such as vaccination rates and cultural factors (for example, the percentage of people willing to wear facial coverings or masks in an area), are also used to determine the best grocery store to shop in within a time frame."

To use the app, a user would input their intended destinations and the farthest distance willing to go, as well as the time frame of the trip. The risk assessment and mitigation system, or RT-CIRAM, then "provides as output the target location and the time interval to reach there that would reduce the chance of infections," said Cheng.

There's a lot to it, says Cheng, and the process is highly reliant on technology.

"We are leveraging urgent high-performance cloud computing, coupled with time-critical scheduling and routing techniques, along with our expertise in real-time embedded systems and cyber-physical systems, machine learning, medical devices, real-time knowledge/rule-based decision systems, formal verification, functional reactive systems, virtualization and intrusion detection," says Cheng.

2 Houston hospitals team up with immunotherapy company for new vaccine for Africa

The new vaccine will hopefully help mitigate spread of the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo via bcm.edu

Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital have teamed up with ImmunityBio Inc. — a clinical-stage immunotherapy company — under a licensing agreement to develop a safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.

BCM has licensed out a recombinant protein COVID-19 vaccine candidate that was developed at the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development to ImmunityBio. According to the release, the company engaged in license negotiations with the BCM Ventures team, about the vaccine that could address the current pandemic needs in South Africa.

"We hope that our COVID-19 vaccine for global health might become an important step towards advancing vaccine development capacity in South Africa, and ultimately for all of Sub-Saharan Africa," says Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

ImmunityBio, which was founded in 2014 by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is working on innovative immunotherapies that address serious unmet needs in infectious diseases, according to a news release from BCM.

"There is a great need for second-generation vaccines, which are accessible, durable and offer broad protection against the emerging variants," says Soon-Shiong. "ImmunityBio has executed on a heterologous ("mix-and-match") strategy to develop a universal COVID-19 vaccine. To accomplish this, we have embarked upon large-scale good manufacturing practices and development of DNA (adenovirus), RNA (self-amplifying mRNA) and subunit protein (yeast) vaccine platforms. This comprehensive approach will leverage our expertise in these platforms for both infectious disease and cancer therapies."

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