The Public deserves Disease Surveillance - Why PathCheck's President pivoted from MTV to launching platforms that protect health
In 2006, I was working on the set of Nick Cannon’s Wild n’ Out for MTV. I was responsible for set dressing and props, which on that show meant anything from making pavé gavels for Katt Williams’ Judge Mo Dollas sketches, to a roll of toilet paper made from XXL Magazine covers as retaliation to its publishers for beef they had with Nick Cannon. I was also recently married, had a new baby, and moved back to Baltimore after living in Los Angeles for 10 years. So, I was traveling back and forth from Baltimore to L.A. and staying with my sister and her family. On one particular trip, I knew as soon as I got off the plane that something was wrong. Within a day or so, I had a fever of 103 degrees, but calling in sick wasn’t an option for me. I needed the money and the show needed me. So I loaded up on TheraFlu and pressed on. By the time the shooting was done, we were wrapping on a soundstage at Nickelodeon On Sunset studios, where Nick’s former show All That was filmed. I was leaving the building through the main lobby and saw Nick greeting fans, taking pictures, and signing autographs. Dripping with sweat from my fever breaking, I simply waved goodbye to Nick. He called me over, put his arm around me, and proclaimed to the crowd, “This guy came to work with a 103-degree temperature! That’s dedication!” Everyone cheered and Nick thanked me.
In 2022, that would not be considered dedication, my actions would be considered dangerous and irresponsible. I’m sure anyone entering the workforce post-COVID could not even fathom going to work sick, but prior decades of cold/flu remedy commercials promoted just that kind of behavior. This global pandemic has rewritten the social contract relative to each culture and nation. For the U.S. that means self-reporting when you have symptoms of COVID, getting tested if you do, staying home and social distancing if you’re positive, and wearing a mask when you might be. These are all behavioral changes that I was told time and again would never happen in the U.S. when I was pitching investors my concept for Sickweather between 2011-2019. After all, what’s the value in an app that shows a real-time map of where people are getting sick if no one does anything about it – there was no proverbial umbrella that U.S. citizens would get out in my illness-weather metaphor. In Asian countries, mask-wearing was culturally acceptable as a means to stave off the spread of illness, but in the U.S. and elsewhere it was laughable and seen as paranoia.
Skipping over how I went from Nick Cannon’s art department guy to CEO of a disease surveillance company, by the time I stepped down from Sickweather and handed control to a new board and CEO in 2019, Sickweather’s data was mostly used by ad agencies for Big Pharma to programmatically target ads for over-the-counter medication in places where symptoms they treated were on the rise – and it was working very well for that purpose, helping IBM win awards and increasing TheraFlu sales by 4%. But the free app, which was the basis for the company, still had a modest number of users who were proactively using it to avoid getting sick, whether they were immunocompromised, caring for someone immunocompromised, or among the ‘worried well’ - a term COVID immediately made antiquated, but was once so common in the medical lexicon that it had its own ICD-10 code Z71.1—"Person with feared complaint in whom no diagnosis is made.” How absurd it would be to distinguish anyone as being among the worried well these days as it has become the new normal. Alas, once the pandemic hit, Google and Apple had removed Sickweather from their platforms in an effort to cull non-state sponsored COVID tracking apps. I was sad to see it go, but through my work with the PathCheck Foundation, I know that similar platforms are being built to fill this gap. Platforms that will serve the new social contract of being mindful of the spread of illness and knowing when to take action to help stop that from happening.
There is also the inevitable backlash to this new social contract, which we already see with anti-maskers who defiantly cough their way through a grocery store, but I think we’ll start to strike a balance between that behavior and the person who wears a mask while jogging outside. A mutually acceptable etiquette for health is observed whenever a parent reminds their kids to cough into their elbows, or businesses remind employees to wash their hands before returning to work, but knowing when to wear a mask requires some external risk analysis between low and high risk. And that means agreeing on what low risk means. An issue with risk notification right now is that public health agencies don’t really want you to ever let your guard down. They don’t want to show a weather report that is fair and sunny with no need for an umbrella, but that’s what the public needs in order to measure their own risk and come to an agreed social contract that permits mask-wearing when needed and when not, or staying home from work when needed and when not. We need to find an acceptable balance in both the etiquette and the understanding of external risk, so that we don’t just throw these social tools away.
With the CDC’s commitment to develop a “National Weather Service for infectious diseases” under the direction of the new Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics we can expect to see more timely information for risk assessment that will support this new social contract, and with that better health outcomes for those who partake.