Dan Gabriel, chief executive officer with AM TRACE, recently spoke with ExecutiveBiz regarding its growth since the onset of COVID-19, covering topics such as expanding public health solutions, networking across communities and keys to retaining a highly skilled workforce. He also shared his thoughts on where the company will head in the future and how to combat future viruses and diseases.
ExecutiveBiz: Why did you start AM TRACE LLC? How did your intelligence background fundamentally inspire the company's progress?
“I spent eight to nine years working through the hotspots that were part of the global war on terrorism, starting with Iraq, Afghanistan, and then Indonesia, first as a government employee and then as a contractor in the final years. I've worked to refine approaches and advance thinking on how the U.S. government can best combat threats.
In 2012, I began my own company, called AM LLC, after leaving government service entirely. We worked within the government contracting space (GovCon), conducting quantitative and qualitative survey research for the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Broadcasting Board of Governors.
AM LLC was ultimately designed to understand populations as audiences, and better communicate across cultures and borders, regarding the missions, goals, and objectives of the United States.“
ExecutiveBiz: What are the main factors that have led to the rapid growth of AM TRACE, especially during COVID-19?
“In the early stages of the onset of COVID-19 in March, I saw an opportunity to pivot our focus from national security toward a new threat: biological developments from viruses.
I saw warning signs that told me the West would have a more challenging time confronting the virus because of our civil liberties and concerns about data privacy. By contrast, in Asia, countries were very successful using technology for contact tracing. That approach was not going to be effective in the United States.
It became clear to me that contact tracing, if it were to be done in the United States, would be very labor intensive. It would need to be done by people picking up the phone and reaching out to patients that have been diagnosed with COVID-19 to try to understand their social network, then to assess the risk of each in-person interaction.“
ExecutiveBiz: How does AM TRACE help the federal, state, and local government fight COVID-19?
“We use technology to improve efficiency by streamlining and aggregating data that is needed to communicate, organize, and adapt to COVID-19. But it’s not all technology. Foremost, it's about earning trust so that people are willing to share information freely.
We work with folks who are trained around human relations to get the data we need to understand public health at large. Our approach, married with our background as a health IT company, enabled us to engage public health departments in a kind of effort that had never before been undertaken.
We’ve also adapted our capability and workforce, adding leading public health and medical experts, that enable us to expand our offerings to include COVID-19 testing and ultimately COVID-19 vaccine distribution, quality assurance, and logistics.
From start to finish, we’re helping public health departments around the United States to innovate and to bring outside expertise that is yielding a range of methods for conducting disease surveillance and investigating epidemiology within local communities.
I would fully expect to compete in the federal government contracting space and potentially partner with larger companies that don't have as much experience as us with contact tracing.
In January 2021, we expect a federal, centralized approach to COVID-19 tracing. We are on the GSA scale, and we have nearly a decade of experience supporting the DoD and other government agencies.“
ExecutiveBiz: How does AM TRACE use contract tracing to innovate its approaches?
“The first objective is to get people to answer the phone. Contact tracing efforts are taking place in a very unusual political context, and there’s certainly a lot of division in the country and distrust of the government to some extent.
When people talk to government officials about COVID-19 and their social networks, they’re often fearful of answering questions and having conversations about their behavioral, travel, and social patterns, which can seriously undermine the effectiveness of contact tracing.
One of the key innovations that we’ve brought to contact tracing is a community engagement model. Contact tracing is dependent on voluntary responses from citizens in the community. We understand that public health takes place at the local level, and the community is critical.
We’ve made this available to public health partners to prioritize community-based organizations' engagement so that the public hears credible voices in their local communities. That can improve contact tracing outcomes and ultimately advance strategic communication.“
ExecutiveBiz: When bringing new members to your team, what qualifications do you seek?
“The people that we hire to do this work are highly trained in contact tracing, not just conventional call center work. Contact tracing is not a job that you can walk in off the street, take an eight-hour online course, and begin work.
We hire people with clinical and counseling backgrounds, so they can relate and respond to a patient who's either sick or will potentially be sick. There are established best practices to lead episodic conversations with those individuals.
The counseling skills arise from training, and also from hiring the right people. We take pride in our workforce and spend a lot of time and effort to find the most qualified people in each locality. These aren't folks in another country or even state; they are specialists that we hire from each community we are supporting. Our people are serving their neighbors.“
ExecutiveBiz: What are the key policies and changes that would drive better public health agency responses to COVID-19 by the new administration and state governments?
“TRACE is very forward-looking. Long after COVID-19 is behind us, we will be looking at lessons learned from what we did well, as well as where we could improve. We will use that to explore a foundation for future success in disease mitigation.
Asian countries certainly used the H1N1 experience as preparation which helped them be more effective in what they were able to do to combat COVID-19, and we’re going to have to do that as a country as well. This will not be the last disease that we face as a civilization.
Government leaders need to think more about the government’s role in public health. Perhaps people didn't think we needed the county's public health department to do much more than monitor restaurant sanitation before the global pandemic hit. We need to make sure it doesn't become an easy budget to cut when there’s no longer a pandemic upon us.
However, throughout COVID-19, we've seen a lack of resources allocated to local public health departments, which is setting back our response to the pandemic. Hopefully, that’s something from which we’re able to draw valuable lessons.“
ExecutiveBiz: What are your growth goals for AM TRACE, and what’s the big audacious goal you have for the company?
“In terms of our customer base, there’s a natural progression across local health departments where COVID-19 has had the most significant impact. The federal government is clearly in a position to take over the fight into 2021 and beyond.
TRACE will focus on evolving from contact tracing toward finding COVID-19 solutions, such as testing, vaccine distribution logistics and managing supply chain issues as markets expand.
As we move past COVID-19, TRACE will remain a service provider and a trusted partner to public health departments, whether on the federal, state, or local levels. We will work to support public health departments that frequently don’t have the right resources to scale up quickly to respond to both future pandemic threats as well as other public health challenges.“