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How Self-Driving Intelligence Helped Pittsburgh Health Officials Increase Access to Free COVID-19 Testing

Covid-19 Testing

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AI Argo picks up COVID-19 test specimens at various locations before dropping them off at the Allegheny Health Department on Tuesday June 9, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/For Argo)

Argo AI is rooted in a culture of safety. It’s why we test our self-driving vehicles through computer simulation and in the lab, on closed courses and on public streets. Testing brings confidence in the health of a system — and it’s that ethos that galvanized us in the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic to help.

In Allegheny County, Pa., more than 170,000 individuals have been tested for SARS-CoV-2, representing people of all ages, races, genders and backgrounds. They are our neighbors, colleagues, and friends. No one is immune.

But there’s a critical step in disaster relief where logistical challenges become granular. You have to ask questions, like: “Who will pick up and deliver necessities to the communities that need them most? Do they have the resources to make those drops? How will people get there efficiently? And do they have the time?” It’s in that last mile of the supply chain where the greatest hurdles often crop up.

Argo AI’s headquarters community was no different. In May, when free testing was still sparse, the Richard King Mellon Foundation found and purchased an initial supply of 2,000 high-quality COVID-19 test kits from the California-based company Curative. Allegheny County Health Department officials could get the unused tests to the centers, and they secured partners to fly pending kits back to the West Coast for processing. But local health care workers had no easy answer for that critical last mile.

“The county needed a logistical partner,” said Argo AI CEO Bryan Salesky, “someone who could safely transport these time-sensitive tests back to the people who could get them to California. We knew we had the right resources to step in.”

Argo AI picks up COVID-19 test specimens at various locations before dropping them off at the Allegheny Health Department on Tuesday June 9, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/For AI Argo)

It started with routing — using traffic data and Argo-generated maps to plot thoughtful, time-efficient paths to and from seven Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) in underserved areas of Pittsburgh.

“It’s one of the more meaningful things that I’ve ever done,” said Steve Swartz, an Argo AI Operations Manager who helped define the routes. He made the first pickups and deliveries himself. Managers like Swartz didn’t want to assume other employees would be comfortable transporting medical samples.

“It was a learning experience, but we figured out a system that worked for everyone in the first few days,” Swartz said. “For the communities that don’t have a lot and can’t afford to hire a van to drive around for pick up and deliveries, I think it means the world.”

Dr. Jerome Gloster, Chief Executive Officer of Primary Care Health Services Inc., was hopeful early on that the influx of tests would encourage anyone feeling ill to come forward, especially for those lacking insurance or access to personal transportation. Ideally, Gloster said the efforts would “work to reverse the trend of poor outcomes and save lives.”

County data suggests it worked. Greater access to free testing in communities of color helped health officials better understand the prevalence of disease in underrepresented neighborhoods, according to county health officials. About 38% of FQHC tests represented people of color, and more than two-thirds of those tested identified as Black. Both percentages are much higher than their corresponding county populations — 22% BIPOC and 13% Black, respectively.

“Argo’s continued support of testing at the Federally Quality Health Centers made it possible for testing to remain in these communities,” said Dr. Debra Bogen, Director of the Allegheny County Health Department. “I thank Argo for stepping up and being part of a program critical to the public health of all.”

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said he’s grateful Argo jumped in to meet the need. “Our county’s strength has always been in working together to solve problems,” he said.

Argo AI test manager
This summer, Argo AI test specialists spent about 550 working hours picking up and delivering COVID-19 test kits from seven Federally Qualified Health Centers in Pittsburgh. The drops were coordinated through two Argo test vehicles operating most weekdays.

The volume of tests revealed something, too.

Argo AI Test Specialists Tre Davis and Jackworth Smith kept an eye on the number of bright red and black biohazard bins the county supplied them day to day. At first, in the height of summer, their “corona runs” might net three bins — the clear plastic bags inside bulging with pending tests. “So I kinda knew that maybe the county wasn’t going in the right direction [in flattening the curve],” Smith said, “and in a few weeks, they shut down bars and restaurants again.”

By their final runs in August, with some state and local restrictions easing, both the bins and the moods of those inside the health centers seemed noticeably lighter.

“I just love it when you all come by,” said one nurse, greeting Smith outside a clinic in Pittsburgh’s South Side neighborhood. Happy reactions were more common, Davis said, and locals seemed more at ease about stopping to talk several feet away. Some even asked questions about the self-driving test vehicles.

Swartz said it’s empowering to look back now at how the partnership evolved — from the first day when neither FQHC workers nor Argo employees were sure how to make it work, to weeks later when Test Specialists often volunteered for the honor.

Davis agreed. Earlier this year, his great uncle died of COVID-19. Smith’s life has also been touched. The partnership presented one small way to contribute, they said.

“I get to work in the artificial intelligence industry, and as part of that, this partnership let me give back to my town when it needed it most,” Davis said. “Helping develop technology, helping with health care, and helping people in my city? Yeah, that’s just awesome.”

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