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Head of St. Louis' virus task force tapped to lead national committee on technology
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Head of St. Louis' virus task force tapped to lead national committee on technology

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Dr. Alexander Garza delivers press briefing

Dr. Alexander Garza, Chief Medical Officer with SSM Health, prepares to provide a daily briefing for the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force at the SSM corporate headquarters in St. Louis County on Tuesday, April 07, 2020. The daily briefings are streamed on the task force's facebook page for everyone to watch. (Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com)

ST. LOUIS — One of the country’s most important technology trade groups has tapped Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, to lead a new committee on the use of technology — from flying drones to curing data disasters — to combat future public health emergencies.

Garza, chief medical officer at St. Louis-based SSM Health hospitals, joins executives from some of the largest U.S. companies and organizations, including Microsoft, CVS Health, Facebook and the Brookings Institute. The committee, convened by the Consumer Technology Association, is charged with reviewing the use of technology during health crises and expects to consider topics such as thermal maps, artificial intelligence, wearables and robotics.

“If you look at all the technologies to mitigate some of the worst consequences of this pandemic — they exist,” said Rene Quashie, vice president of digital health of CTA. “But we want to make sure that they’re used to their fullest potential.”

Drones, for example, could have been used to fly over crowds and read temperatures.

But Garza, who helps set the committee’s agenda, has his eyes set on a different facet of technology: streamlining data flow. Over the past few months, he has witnessed firsthand the data inconsistencies and lags that have hampered public health officials’ ability to adequately respond to the novel coronavirus.

“It’s been difficult to get a whole picture idea of what’s going on with the pandemic from a regional, statewide, and national perspective,” said Garza. “It’s a data presentation and aggregation problem.”

With COVID-19 testing, Garza said that there are many steps between sample collection and when the results are reported. “The data has to make its way through many governmental bodies, and there are multiple failure points,” he said.

For example, President Donald Trump’s administration last week directed hospitals to change how they report data to the federal government, leading the Missouri Hospital Association to lose access to the data it uses to guide state coronavirus mitigation efforts, just before Missouri COVID-19 caseloads began breaking records.

Garza also faulted the “archaic nature” of case reporting in Missouri. “We were laid bare with this pandemic,” he said. “Missouri’s reporting system was decades old, difficult to use and difficult to get data out of.”

Some technologies have worked. “Everyone agrees that telemedicine and remote patient monitoring have worked during this pandemic,” said Quashie. “If you look at telemedicine use statistics prior to pandemic, they were pretty low. The problem was getting people to try it.”

The committee, which began meeting in June, aims to produce a white paper by the end of the year. Quashie hopes it will guide state health departments as well as federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security. He also hopes the findings will be publicly available to showcase the “full menu of technologies” in dealing with a public health emergency.

Picking Garza to co-chair the committee was a no-brainer, said Quashie.

“He is an important player in the COVID-19 response in St. Louis, he brings previous government experience, he’s a clinician, and he’s served in public positions,” he said. “And he also has Army experience.”

While an emergency medicine resident in 1997, he joined the U.S. Army Reserves and served as a battalion surgeon and public health team chief. He deployed to Iraq in 2003 and was awarded the Bronze Star and a Combat Action Badge.

In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Garza as assistant secretary to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. He immediately went to work on the nation’s response to the H1N1 flu pandemic, which killed more than 12,000 people. After four years, he came back to St. Louis with his wife and three sons and became associate dean for public health practice and an associate professor of epidemiology at St. Louis University College of Public Health and Social Justice.

Garza joined SSM in 2016 as vice president for medical affairs, and he became chief medical officer in 2018.

“I would like to hope that we will be more prepared for the next pandemic,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot of valuable lessons in the way we do business, but it was through necessity rather than by choice. It was an experiment developed at warp speed to see what would happen.”

Microsoft Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Rhew will co-chair the committee, formally called the Public Health Tech Initiative.

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