In late February 2020, Seattle was the first major metropolitan area in the United States to identify and diagnose COVID-19. The Seattle Flu Study (SFS), a precursor to today’s Seattle-area Coronavirus programs, aimed to identify the spread of flu, its vectors, and over time, testing interventions to learn how to better prepare for and fight pandemics. Because it was in place and operational during the early weeks of global COVID-19 infections, the Seattle Flu Study identified the first known case of community transmission in Washington, from someone who would not have otherwise been tested for COVID-19.
As nations, regions, and local communities began to ramp COVID testing volumes, surveillance techniques, and health care capacity planning, it became clear that attention to overall digital infrastructure for testing, reporting, communications, and community engagement had fallen short – not to mention the wide range of efficacy in public health and government leaders’ responses. In Seattle, it was time to pivot to address the growing threat to our health, economy, and community. A consortium of partners – including the Brotman Baty Institute (via University of Washington Medicine, The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and Seattle Children’s) and Public Health Seattle and King County – coalesced to perform a public health service: tackle COVID-19 head-on with the Seattle Coronavirus Assessment Network, or SCAN.
To quickly bring the program to market, Formative and the array of SCAN partners were tasked with taking the existing infrastructure from the Flu Study and turning it into a public health surveillance network – and successfully messaging that network to the public. The first step was immediately pivoting the Study’s infrastructure – including the quick-turn home delivery system, website, and existing API – to serve the urgent need of tracking and testing the spread of COVID-19, instead of the flu, in the greater Seattle area. Our program team worked around the clock to respond to the wildly-changing landscape in real time – changing program components, developing new features for testing programs, managing other communications channels and protocols, and more. Meeting the community’s urgent need meant that this work had to happen in record time – and it did, launching in under twelve days.
Our team was also in the middle of the torrent of information and accompanying media frenzy around COVID-19. We were a key part of the team managing media inquiries, preparing the program’s investigators for interviews, creating messaging, and managing through the early stages of the coronavirus news cycles. Managing perception around a very new, and often very scary, topic was critical: it was essential that we position the program correctly in an emerging marketplace, and for a wide variety of audiences, including health care professionals, scientists, and a sample of the general public that was truly representative of the greater Seattle community. Hand-in-hand with these strategic communications came a foundation of high-stakes decision making and advisement that we provided to all major stakeholders on how to conceptualize and present a community surveillance platform in a way that balanced both urgency and approachability. There were a minefield of perception, safety, and user experience risks that we helped anticipate, navigate, and solve.
Over tenth months after the discovery of community spread of COVID-19 here in Seattle, the SCAN team is still hard at work – and now, that means helping scale the program to inform testing, especially at-home kits, around the country. Our team continues to help push on process and create role clarity and accountability in a project with a large number of stakeholders – across the private, public, and civil sectors.