Learn how to contact trace COVID-19 with UH's new, online course. Photo by Getty Images

As the nationwide battle against COVID-19 surges on, the University of Houston is launching a free new program to train locals how to identify and warn potentially exposed individuals throughout the region.

The new contact tracing and case identification certificate program — dubbed Epi Corps for Epidemiology Corps — is meant to train up a new type of so-called "disease detective" to combat coronavirus. The 12-hour, online course is currently open to UH students, faculty, and staff — and will soon be made available to the general public, according to the university.

This comes as the Houston Health Department last week announced plans to add 300 new contact tracers in addition to the 300 disease detectives Harris County Public Health plans to recruit. More than 100,000 trained contact tracers will be needed across the country to address COVID-19, according to a report by Johns Hopkins University. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's plan to reopen the state calls for some 4,000 contact tracers to be hired statewide by mid-May.

The goal for the Epi Corps training program is to be scaled statewide, as Texas lags in per-capita testing for coronavirus, ranking 47th out of 50 states. "We really do not have a good handle on how many people have been exposed or how many people are asymptomatic carriers, making contact tracing critically important," said program organizer, Bettina Beech, in a statement.

Contact tracing is considered crucial in the fight against COVID-19, teamed with social distancing, stay-at-home mandates, and good hygiene practices. The Center for Disease Control warns if communities are unable to effectively isolate patients and ensure contacts can separate themselves from others, rapid community spread of COVID-19 is likely to increase to the point that strict mitigation strategies will again be needed to contain the virus.

Through this new program, the corps staffers could be deployed to work on-site at the city and county health departments to assist COVID-19 patients recall everyone they've had close contact with leading up to their infection. The contact tracers would then notify those contacts of their potential exposure and provide education, support, and information to understand their risk.

The contact tracers-in-training will be trained on COVID-19 signs and symptoms, epidemiology, medical terminology, cultural competency, interpersonal communication and interviewing skills, patient confidentiality, and more, according to the school. Those who successfully complete the course will receive a digital certificate, and some students will be eligible to earn credit hours.

The Epi Corps curriculum will be administered via the Blackboard digital learning platform. Plans are moving forward to make a shorter program available to the community at large, including small businesses, in the coming weeks.

The training follows a format similar to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contact tracing training program for tuberculosis and is based on the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials contact tracing training modules, according to UH.

"Contact tracing, along with large-scale testing, is a critical component to reopening our state and to stimulate the economy, but the national and local public health infrastructure does not have the capacity to handle this task alone," said Dr. Stephen Spann, founding dean of the UH College of Medicine, in a statement. "As a public university dedicated to serving the community, it's incumbent upon us to step up and provide the necessary training so we can get through this crisis together."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Houston-based equitable entrepreneurship tech platform expands programs

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Fresh off of celebrating the dismissal of a lawsuit from former Trump Administration officials, Hello Alice is expanding some of its offerings for entrepreneurs.

In partnership with top organizations — like Progressive, Antares Capital, Wells Fargo, and FedEx — Hello Alice has added new offerings for its 2024 Boost Camp programs, a mix of skill-building support and grant opportunities.

“We are fortunate to continue working with great enterprise partners who share our commitment to supporting Main Street through crucial grants and mentorship programs,” Carolyn Rodz, CEO and co-founder of Hello Alice, says in a news release. “Small businesses drive our economy, yet often lack the necessary financing and resources. By partnering with major companies, Hello Alice is ensuring that small businesses have access to the tools and opportunities they need to thrive and create jobs in their local communities. Together, we are building a robust support system that fosters innovation and growth for small businesses across the country.”

This year's programs, according to Hello Alice, are as follows:

  • Antares Capital REACH Cohort: The Antares REACH Grant Program provides $20,000 grants to small businesses. Grant recipients will also take part in Antares’ Growth Track Boost Camp program, a digital community which will be home to monthly business coaching workshops, mentorship, networking, and more. Applications are open until June 28, and the program begins August 8.
  • Progressive Driving Small Business Forward Grant & Booster Camp Program: Progressive is dedicating $1 million to award 20 deserving businesses with a $50,000 grant each. Grant recipients will be invited to attend an exclusive 12-week virtual Boost Camp coaching program. Applications have closed for the program beginning September 10.
  • Wells Fargo: Wells Fargo is supporting four virtual accelerator programs over the next 18 months, designed to support up to 500 participants for each program, with a focus on business health and credit-building practices. Applications will be announced this summer for the program, which will begin in early fall.
  • FedEx: The FedEx Entrepreneur Fund supports entrepreneurs in the United States by providing them with the necessary funding, resources, and networks to enhance the success of their businesses, including the Boost Camp coaching program.
  • Applications will be announced this fall for the program, which will begin in the winter.

More information and application access is available online.

Last year's Boost programs benefitted 100 small businesses, according to Hello Alice, which reported that the 2023 Antares REACH Cohort resulted in 60 percent of participants seeing an increase in their Business Health Score and 93 percent felt better equipped to confront challenges and capitalize on opportunities. In the end, 85 percent of participants feeling more optimistic about their business growth prospects.

"Hello Alice is proud to partner with high-level enterprise companies to empower small businesses and foster their success," Natalie Diamond, vice president of business development at Hello Alice, adds. "Together, we are creating unparalleled opportunities for entrepreneurs to achieve brand success, drive financial fitness, and thrive in today's competitive market. Our joint endeavors not only offer access to capital and resources but also provide tailored guidance and mentorship, arming small business owners with the insights and support necessary to navigate challenges and seize growth opportunities.”

Houston company's sustainable oil product reaches milestone production capacity 5 years early

overachieving

Houston-based biotech company Cemvita has achieved a key production goal five years ahead of schedule.

Thanks to technology advancements, Cemvita is now capable of generating 500 barrels per day of sustainable oil from carbon waste at its first commercial plant. As a result, Cemvita has quadrupled output at the Houston plant. The company had planned to reach this milestone in 2029.

Cemvita, founded in 2017, says this achievement paves the way for increased production capacity, improved operational efficiency, and an elevated advantage in the sustainable oil market.

“What’s so amazing about synthetic biology is that humans are just scratching the surface of what’s possible,” says Moji Karimi, co-founder and CEO of Cemvita. “Our focus on the first principles has allowed us to design and create new biotech more cheaply and faster than ever before.”

The production achievement follows Cemvita’s recent breakthrough in development of a solvent-free extraction bioprocess.

In 2023, United Airlines agreed to buy up to one billion gallons of sustainable aviation fuel from Cemvita’s first full-scale plant over the course of 20 years.

Cemvita’s investors include the UAV Sustainable Flight Fund, an investment arm of Chicago-based United; Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, an investment arm of Houston-based energy company Occidental Petroleum; and Japanese equipment and machinery manufacturer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

Tech disruptions sparked by Texas co.'s update highlight the fragility of globally connected technology

Airlines, banks, hospitals and other risk-averse organizations around the world chose cybersecurity company CrowdStrike to protect their computer systems from hackers and data breaches.

But all it took was one faulty CrowdStrike software update to cause global disruptions Friday that grounded flights, knocked banks and media outlets offline, and disrupted hospitals, retailers and other services.

“This is a function of the very homogenous technology that goes into the backbone of all of our IT infrastructure,” said Gregory Falco, an assistant professor of engineering at Cornell University. “What really causes this mess is that we rely on very few companies, and everybody uses the same folks, so everyone goes down at the same time.”

The trouble with the update issued by CrowdStrike and affecting computers running Microsoft's Windows operating system was not a hacking incident or cyberattack, according to CrowdStrike, which apologized and said a fix was on the way.

But it wasn't an easy fix. It required “boots on the ground” to remediate, said Gartner analyst Eric Grenier.

“The fix is working, it’s just a very manual process and there’s no magic key to unlock it,” Grenier said. “I think that is probably what companies are struggling with the most here.”

While not everyone is a client of CrowdStrike and its platform known as Falcon, it is one of the leading cybersecurity providers, particularly in transportation, healthcare, banking and other sectors that have a lot at stake in keeping their computer systems working.

“They’re usually risk-averse organizations that don’t want something that’s crazy innovative, but that can work and also cover their butts when something goes wrong. That’s what CrowdStrike is,” Falco said. “And they’re looking around at their colleagues in other sectors and saying, ‘Oh, you know, this company also uses that, so I’m gonna need them, too.’”

Worrying about the fragility of a globally connected technology ecosystem is nothing new. It's what drove fears in the 1990s of a technical glitch that could cause chaos at the turn of the millennium.

“This is basically what we were all worried about with Y2K, except it’s actually happened this time,” wrote Australian cybersecurity consultant Troy Hunt on the social platform X.

Across the world Friday, affected computers were showing the “blue screen of death” — a sign that something went wrong with Microsoft's Windows operating system.

But what's different now is “that these companies are even more entrenched,” Falco said. "We like to think that we have a lot of players available. But at the end of the day, the biggest companies use all the same stuff.”

Founded in 2011 and publicly traded since 2019, CrowdStrike describes itself in its annual report to financial regulators as having “reinvented cybersecurity for the cloud era and transformed the way cybersecurity is delivered and experienced by customers.” It emphasizes its use of artificial intelligence in helping to keep pace with adversaries. It reported having 29,000 subscribing customers at the start of the year.

The Austin, Texas-based firm is one of the more visible cybersecurity companies in the world and spends heavily on marketing, including Super Bowl ads. At cybersecurity conferences, it's known for large booths displaying massive action-figure statues representing different state-sponsored hacking groups that CrowdStrike technology promises to defend against.

CrowdStrike CEO George Kurtz is among the most highly compensated in the world, recording more than $230 million in total compensation in the last three years. Kurtz is also a driver for a CrowdStrike-sponsored car racing team.

After his initial statement about the problem was criticized for lack of contrition, Kurtz apologized in a later social media post Friday and on NBC's “Today Show.”

“We understand the gravity of the situation and are deeply sorry for the inconvenience and disruption,” he said on X.

Richard Stiennon, a cybersecurity industry analyst, said this was a historic mistake by CrowdStrike.

“This is easily the worst faux pas, technical faux pas or glitch of any security software provider ever,” said Stiennon, who has tracked the cybersecurity industry for 24 years.

While the problem is an easy technical fix, he said, it’s impact could be long-lasting for some organizations because of the hands-on work needed to fix each affected computer. “It’s really, really difficult to touch millions of machines. And people are on vacation right now, so, you know, the CEO will be coming back from his trip to the Bahamas in a couple of weeks and he won’t be able to use his computers.”

Stiennon said he did not think the outage revealed a bigger problem with the cybersecurity industry or CrowdStrike as a company.

“The markets are going to forgive them, the customers are going to forgive them, and this will blow over,” he said.

Forrester analyst Allie Mellen credited CrowdStrike for clearly telling customers what they need to do to fix the problem. But to restore trust, she said there will need to be a deeper look at what occurred and what changes can be made to prevent it from happening again.

“A lot of this is likely to come down to the testing and software development process and the work that they’ve put into testing these kinds of updates before deployment,” Mellen said. “But until we see the complete retrospective, we won’t know for sure what the failure was.”